Archive for November, 2011

So out two year long campaign ended this weekend with a climactic battle against the Primordial Piranoth (from Revenge of the Giants) that destroyed the primordial and released an enormous explosion of fiery elemental and divine energies that instantly slew the heroes, erupted the volcano the heart of which was Piranoth’s prison, and ultimately destroyed the northern town of Neverwinter at its feet. But the world of D Erte was saved from the grim future of the dying world of Dark Sun, the final conclusion set in motion by the Giant War. The death of Piranoth ended the war and Law was victorious over Chaos once again in the eternal war of balance fought on the battlefields of the mortal realms.

The powerful energies released by Piranoth’s destruction infused the spirits of the mortals who slew him, and they in turn became demi-gods and were idolized as immortal supeheroes amongst their peoples forever after. Poppy Nine Toes became the Avatar of the Raven Queen to the Elves, and Thokk became the Councillor of War to the Orcish god Gruumsh, and was claimed to lead a horde of mongrel humanoids that plundered across southern D Erte from the Red Keep to the Walls of Greater Shalazar in the decades that followed. Felipe was already an icon in the Furred Fashion industry of D Erte, and was forever after called upon in times of need for fashion and style. Many of her rituals involved getting undressed and hairy. The vampire Rook was already undead, so her transformation was least noticeable. She became the most powerful vampire on D Erte, even rivalling the Immortal Queen Cadence of Shalazar, her mother. They forever fought or maybe joined in alliance to conquer the world who knows.

Hex the Space (curse like a)Pirate became the foundation and model for a new college that arose called the School of Swordlockery, and it taught a form of meditation known as Curse-n-Stab. Tolro, Tolstoy, Tolkein, Tollhouse Elf became a spirit of luck amongst the elves, and often a prayer would be whispered to her before making a tricky archery shot, or baking a batch of cookies. Now John Smith, also known as the Archer of Dale, slew the red dragon Smaug and saved his people. Wait, wrong John. It was John Smith, also known as “The Texas Ranger” who slew the fire giant King Snurl and the primordial Piranoth in a hail of attacks he perfected known as the “Twin-Twin Strike.” His people were strict lutherans, so his memory was merely anointed that of Patriarch of People Whose Name Starts with J.

And so ended a campaign of 2 years of weekly games, with a few interruptions here and there. It lasted approximately 90-100 sessions total, most of which are chronicled on this blog. The Characters reached 15th level and were at the height of their power, and had fought their way across time and space to defeat their foes and find their way home. In the end they gave their lives to save the world (and because they were OP and had to be destroyed, unfairly if required.) But they achieved immortal status and changed the face of the world of D Erte forever.

Synopsis of the Campaign

The campaign started just after Christmas 2009 with the adventure the Keep on the Shadowfell. From their followed a series of encounters as the heroes of that adventure chased down the information they had learned about a cursed knife that the defeated elf Ninaren had used to try and enslave the elven people. They passed through the hamlet of Hommlett and were accused of burning down a barn and killing and old man, when they were attacked by a flaming beholder. In the town of Winterhaven they met the leader of a mercenary company called the White Rose who it turned out was sister to Ninaren, and they were attacked by their father Zagnazerak the Lord of Time and Space who cursed them with a red lightning bolt that sent then to the world of Dark Sun.

Arriving bereft of all but their most prized possessions, the heroes had to cross a burning desert and they fought dinosaurs merely to drink the still steaming blood. They came upon a cursed city in the sands known as Nazerak, and met new heroes to join them on the journey, such as Sir Hex-a-lot, Sharia the Flame princess and Ria the heala to name a few.

While there they helped the White Rose end the curse of the people of Nazerak, and found that the world of Dark Sun was merely a terrible future world of D Erte, after Zagnazerak destroys it by creating a war between the giants of chaos and the mortals of Law. They learn that to get home to their time, they need to escape through the portal that lies in the bowels of Zagnazeraks Treasure Vaults, in the capital city of Tyr. They journey to the palace grounds through a teleporting water system, and sneak into the vaults where they must battle Sapho the Electric Blue Gremlin Infused Blue Dragon which is incredibly in the same chamber where they slew Ninaren and Kalarel during the epic conclusion of Keep on the Shadowfell. They fought amongst dusty dry pools of their own ten thousand year old blood.

After defeating the dragon, they escape through the portal and find themselves in a dark future where the entire world is dead and the sun is just a bright star in the sky. The surface of the world is covered in bones and a road of skulls leads to a cube shaped mountain, with skulls of a billion dead heaped around it. This is the tomb and final resting place of Zagnazerak, also known as the Tomb of Horrors.

They survive, butbarely, and it was a year ago that happened. After leaving the tomb, with Zagnazerak’s spirit eternally destroyed, they are greeted by Santos, who showers them with gifts and leads them to the city at the end of time. The city is where heroes retire, and it exists outside the normal flow of time. They rest for a time,and are then offered a choice of destinations, each of which lead back to their time. One choice is a strange time of turmoil in an alternate version of D Erte called Gamma World. The other choice is a place in the Fey Wild called the Isle of Dread. They choose the Isle, as they have seen things called “guns” in this weird world, and want nothing to do with them.

On the Isle, they befriend creatures known as Chibi Fanaton, which are like sharp tooth flying monkey halflings with long dagger wielding prehensile tails. They also save the wizard Obitello Amber, and his children Xvart, Ismelda and Isolda. At some point most of the party is eaten by a Fiendish T-Rex Fang Titan Drake, or FTR-FTD.

Then they steal a pirate ship from the githyanki and head to a town known as the Free Port City of the Samarquoil. Here they engage in the strange pirate politics of the town and uncover a plot to take over the town by a serpent cult who are merely pawns of the Yuanti Serpent Men. They carry the warning of a Yuanti Invasion to the Queen of Shalazar and while there, meet Rowthar, who they know from the City at the End of Time. They know the time has come to fight the great battle that will determine the fate of the world, and so gird their loins and head north to rebuild the city of D Argent, city of Heroes – and future City at the End of Time.

They gather the lion men people back to the city to work as the stewards and companions to heroes, and then they begin defeating the kings of the giant folk one by one, while recovering pieces of a divine engine that is said to keep their lord and master, Piranoth the Primordial locked for all time in the heart of a volcano. And so on…

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This article was a long time coming. When I started playing 4th Edition, it was impossible that such blasphemy could ever sprout from my finger-tips. But as we get older, we get more jaded and cynical, and recently I began to acknowledge some tiny hair-line fractures running rampant through this, my favorite version of the world’s greatest role-playing game of all time. Herein I will attempt to clarify the points of the game that I find irritating, or in opposition to the fun the game is meant to bring about.

I should, however, be quick to point out that even with these perceived problems, I still have tons of fun playing the game, and have no intentions of abandoning 4th edition dungeons and dragons for any other game, or any previous edition. In fact, my intent is rather to help discern a path forward to make the 4th edition even better than it is now, by house-ruling my personal game, and also by reaching out to the wider audience to help influence the discussion about how the game designers should fly our flag-ship into the future.

Most of these ideas have flared up at some point during the interminable “edition wars” but the intent of this article is not to re-open old wounds, nor to cause fresh ones, but merely to express opinions cautiously formulated over the course of many years of gameplay – in hopes of fostering a better game. It is also important to note that the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons is not alone in suffering from these and other imperfections, but that they are to be found in older editions of the game as well as in other games altogether. In other words, no game is perfect, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to make each game as good as it can be.

Combat takes too long

4th edition combat is brilliantly tactical, with movement, action, and sound and fury. It can invoke some of the most tense, dramatic combats of any edition, and it is an area where the game literally soars. The combat side of the game has all the strategy of a military wargame, coupled with infinite character customization, and brought into focus with great environmental effects and inspired monster design. This incredible treasure trove of features, however, is its own downfall. With so much happening, round after round, the fights tend to bog down, and it is normal to spend hours resolving a single battle.

That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, and for many people a 2 hour battle is perfect. However, when playing with large groups, or with limited time, the lengthy battles directly reduce the amount of time for non-combat role playing and exploration that also make up a fulfilling session. Not every session needs to have equal time for each type of gameplay, but when a single combat takes up 50% or more of a single session, it makes moving the story along that much more difficult, and can cause the game to descend into a sort of semi-related string of combat sequences, like the dungeon delves that the game came out with in its infancy.

Incidentally, Dungeon Delve is one of my favorite 4e products. It is a highly formulaic book of short adventures, called delves, each of a set number of encounters, and each a perfectly encapsulated adventure, one for every level up to 30. The delves are excellent to use for all sorts of things, from random encounters, to a prep-free pick-up game. However, if the game were reduced to ONLY delves, without the rich stories, role-playing, exploration, and connection to an imagined living fantasy world, then it would lose much of what makes the game great. Therefore, combat taking too long is only a detriment, insofar as it reduces the amount of time for other important activities.

There is nothing wrong with dungeon delves, but the game has the potential to offer so much more. It is disheartening to have to rush through role-playing sequences, or hand-wave important yet time-consuming moments of game-play just to satisfy the need for enough combat time. It creates a false structure on a game that should be kept as open-ended as possible.

I have experimented with adjusting initiative order, adding timers, and even adjusting the monster’s stats to facilitate faster combat. There are plenty of things that can be done to shorten the lengths of combat, and much has been written about different techniques, even a few articles on the subject by myself. However, these are all work-arounds to an actual problem: combat needs to move swifter.

The main problem with combat length is built into the design of the game. With each character having three separate and distinct actions each round (not counting all the interrupts) the time it takes to plan and then execute those actions is a major cause of long combat. Standard, move and minor is too much, especially for those players who want to use up all three actions every time. Sometimes I long for the days of a single action per round, though it would surely destroy some of the unique fluidity of 4th edition combat.

Second on the list of why combat takes so long, is that characters have so many different options during a round of combat, including multiple standard actions to choose from, multiple move actions, and multiple minors. Each of these actions needs to be tactically studied in order for the character to perform optimally. While some may argue that a character should plan his actions when it is not his turn, the dynamic nature of combat means that a player must always be updating their plans as each enemy and ally acts.

The number of powers alone number 19-27 on average for a mid level character. Some can be used over and over, some once per encounter, and some once per day. On top of that, some are minor actions, most are standard actions, and many are move actions. A select few even combine more than one action type, or are free, non, interrupt, or otherwise triggered reactions. It is no wonder that there is little time to consider non-power actions, such as skill checks, or other “stunts” during a character’s turn.

Third on the list of why combat bogs down, is that monsters tend to be built for durability. In a recent session I almost laughed aloud when I saw a monster that my 15th level party was about to face. It had 460 hit points, and did 2d8+7 damage. This is incredible. It did an average of 15 points on a hit to a group of characters that had over 100 hp on average. So, if the monster hit the same character each round, in 6 rounds it MIGHT be able to knock him out, while with 460 hit points, the party striker, who does 40 points on an average hit, would have to smack the monster 12 times to score a kill. This is ridiculous, it is built for slog. I cut the hit points of the monster in half and had him do 4d8+7 damage, and he actually became a threat, and the battle ended in 45 minutes with two characters knocked unconscious yet the party victorious. It was a crude experiment – cutting monster hp in half and doubling damage output, but it made a big difference in making the battle shorter, more dangerous, and more intense.

It is my experience that this slowness becomes more acute as the party rises in level. Because of the geometric increase in stats, what was a small amount of slog to begin with, quickly grows to burdensome levels. Other than various work-arounds, I know of no way to solve this issue without losing some of the amazing dynamism that makes 4th edition combat so fun and engrossing. Dropping the minor action, and sticking with a 2 step move/standard is one way to make serious inroads into speeding up combat, and I might eventually try to house-rule something like this, but I expect an uproar from my players, and it would be difficult to implement anyway, since so much of the game depends on minor actions. My player who has a feat that allows his character to stand from prone as a minor will surely balk at this attempt to streamline. Not to mention the cursing, vowing, marking, and otherwise making a nuisance of themselves crowd.

There is so much to discuss in relation to why combat takes so much time and how it should be streamlined, but I fear a new edition would be released long before we exhausted all the causes and solutions. Combat is a complex system that has many inter-locking parts, and no solution is simple, but will require an overhaul of the entire system. It is possible to do it within the current rules framework. To give an example, when Wizards of the Coast re-vamped the monster stat block, they corralled all the various interrupts, free actions, and other atypical powers into a “triggered actions” heading. Doing this with character powers, and reducing the quantity, while improving the variety is key.

Character creation takes too long and requires too much hardware

This is the elephant in the room. No really, it is an actual elephant, sitting there in the corner, humming away, waiting for some one to sit down and interact. The elephant I speak of also goes by the name computer, and internet connection, and software that requires a monthly fee to use. I speak of the Online Character Builder, and I rage against the inability to make a competent, optimized character without it.

For years I have had a “no electronics at the table” rule (based on Luke’s Diner from Gilmour Girls) and while I realize that in this ever-modernizing world, technology is quickly replacing much of the paraphernalia once found around a gaming table, it still fills me with rage to think that I MUST have a computer, internet, and up to date Character Builder in order to play the game the way it is meant to be played.

And yes, it IS possible to build a character without the Character Builder, but let me ask you how you will go about choosing amongst the 2,300 feats spread out amongst over 100 sources, some of which, like the Dragon articles, are ONLY found online? It is impossible. Therefore to play the game as it is meant to be played costs money EVERY month, and that is just plain wrong. I understand a company’s need for profit, but forcing the customers to pay every month INDEFINITELY for the luxury of playing a table top game goes too far and if I were a suspicious man, I would suspect that some of the design decisions were based not on making the best game possible, but in making a game that requires a continuous software subscription. The sheer number of feats, and the fact that many elements of the game are only available electronically, supports this cynical theory. Also the fact that they replaced a perfectly working “offline” builder with a buggy, underwhelming online builder points to the company wanting to take the game “online.”

Let us turn from the dubious business practices of Wizards of the Coast for now, and switch gears to the idea that there are 2,300 possible feat choices. There are another few thousand powers to choose from. Scrolling through the feat lists is a mind-numbing experience, and choosing the one obvious good power amongst the dozen lesser ones becomes exasperating after the thousandth time. This may be an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that there are too many redundant, useless, under-powered, over-powered, must-have, shan’t-take choices out there. One thing that springs to mind is the choice of powers, like pact powers of the warlock, that are clearly meant to be taken by the characters who have the applicable pact. Why make that a choice, since it is obvious? The issue is systemic, but fixable.

Powers and feats could be more like skills, where you choose each level between a select set, advancing as you go. Or like the special ability paths of many popular MMO’s. So, by choosing axe-master at first level you get +1 damage. Choosing to rank up at level 2 give access to Headsman’s chop, and so on. Gamma world 4e is another example, which uses cards for powers and treasure, and the character draws amongst his suite of cards during combat. Character building has become like a research project, where various combinations are tested against one another until an optimal outcome is achieved. It is time consuming, and can become boring to those of us lacking an accounting degree.

Still, in the end, it is that 5 bucks a month charge that really gets to me. My inner scrooge rebels at the notion. Ironically, with all the great features the subscription allows, such as the Dungeon and Dragon articles, and the Monster Builder (a truly great piece of work) I think the amount they charge is completely reasonable. I would pay anyway, but I don’t want to HAVE TO pay, it is a fine distinction.

The modifiers explode exponentially

One of the things that bothers me to know end is the steady march upwards of all the stats, scores and modifiers in nice orderly fashion. I have to scratch my head and ask, why? The reason is that characters need to feel like they are growing more powerful as they advance in level, so all the scores and bonuses grow to massive levels, but to exaggerate the point, if a level 1 door is a DC 10 to break down, and a level 2 door is DC 11, then nothing has been achieved, except to force math-challenged players to add ever-higher numbers together in order to beat ever higher challenges. What is hilarious to me, is the basic philosophy that whether level 1 or level 30, a character should usually hit on a 10 or higher on a d20. What this means is that you could basically ignore ALL the modifiers and hand wave hitting on 10 or better, thereby defeating all of the so-called “advancing” that the characters experienced as they gained levels! Sure, there should be some advancing of the stats, but only by making those stat increases matter, by being higher than the average, do they serve purpose, otherwise it becomes a meaningless treadmill.

The magic item system of D&D 4e fell victim to this tread-mill affect, whereby certain magic items were required by certain levels in order for characters to hit the math correctly as they advanced in level. The most absurd reflection of this mechanical meaninglessness was the advent of “Inherent bonuses” introduced into one of my favorite all time D&D products, the Dark Sun 4e Campaign Setting. Inherent bonuses give characters stat bonuses “just because” they are needed for the level advancement math to work out. To me, that is the height of bad rules design. Every plus, every stat bonus, ever modifier should be or symbolize an achievement, not an automatic gain based on game geometry. Otherwise it is just more meaningless, time-consuming finger and toe counting that serves no purpose.

An example of completely useless modifier inflation is the “add 1 every other level” that happens to most stats. Bonuses, and modifiers, including the to-hit roll, armor class, skill bonuses, and the list goes on. By level 30, a player is adding 15 to everything right off the bat. And you know what, all the monsters and traps and bad things are also adding +15, so it all works out. Needless accounting! Not only that, but it also means that a character sheet and its powers have to be printed anew every level, so that the auto stat increases are correctly shown. It is a vicious circle feeding on its own tail.

Another unsatisfactory bit of fallout from this practice of exploding modifiers is that the die roll becomes less and less important. By level 30, some attack rolls may have modifiers of +40 or more to a D20 die roll. When the die roll itself only accounts for up to 1/3 of the total, the game system is out of whack and randomness becomes lessened, drowned under the mountain of modifiers. The design philosophy of 4th edition seems to dampen the randomness of dice at every turn, and this is one more case of the dice roll being less important than the modifiers added to it.

This brings to mind a similar event that happened with another game I used to play. Although not an exact corollary, there are many similarities between what happened with 4th edition combat compared to what happened in my first MMORPG (online computer game) Star Wars Galaxies. After being out for a few years, the game released a massive over-haul that it called the Combat Upgrade. It actually happened in two phases, and the other phase may have been called the New Game Experience or vice-versa, but whatever the case, the basic combat system was completely changed to the point that the whole concept had to be re-learned. It went from being a game that had linear stats across the board, to a system that scaled depending on the character level. Previous to the upgrade, a group of low level characters could get together and kill a super-tough baddie, like a tusken raider or a rancor. Because together, they could inflict enough damage to kill a wildly over-powered creature with tenacity and skill. After the upgrade, tenacity and skill became worthless, because hitting and damaging became scaled based on the difference in level between the opposing parties, to the point that whenever an enemy fell outside the “sweet spot” of a few levels above or below, it would be either immune to attack, or instantly destroyed. Changed the game. For the worse.

There is no reason for this gamist design that does nothing other than to give the illusion of advancement, but is in reality merely a brinkmanship scaling of adversaries to no purpose.

Gamist Design Philosophy with little regard for Simulating Reality

Throughout my lengthy career playing the many editions of Dungeons and Dragons, some things have remained true. One, that rules arguments are inevitable, and two that even though the DM is always the final arbiter in a situation, or should be, it is up to him to describe how the rule mimics or reflects real life. This is crucial to the suspension of disbelief that allows us to live and play in our imaginations. In 4th edition, however, I have found that in more and more of these arguments, there is no hook of reality to hang the game mechanics from. Thus, after the game stops and a rule is sussed out, rather than having an epic image in our minds of what just happened, we are left scratching our heads, shrugging, and saying ok, well let’s move on. It is sometimes hard to describe in every day terms, what a game rule is trying to achieve.

To coin a popular turn of phrase, being a role-playing game, rather than a roll-playing game, there is a certain similarity to reality the game needs if the game is to allow players character’s existing and interacting in it in a logical manner. If the mundane things of the game do not hold up to the test of reality, then it makes it harder for the players to set aside their world-weary ways and to interact with the fantasy world as if it were real. In the most basic sense, things like gravity, the air we breathe, the properties of metal, wood, flesh, ice, etc. all need to conform to reality. When they don’t, people notice very quickly. It is like waking up to see two moons hovering in the night sky – some things in life are so common that we humans quickly detect when something is amiss. In a role playing game, this is bad, because it takes you out of the story.

There are so many examples in this game, and indeed in ALL games, that we would be left with no rules left at all if we wanted to make a perfect simulation, but that is not the trouble. It is the noticeable things, the argument-ending things that seem to be so wonky in this game. Here is one egregious example: in D&D 4e, there is very little difference in price between a suit of leather armor and a suit of full plate. Both are cheap enough to be bought and equipped by a brand new first level character. This, despite the fact that the armor weighs as much as 100 times the leather, and requires an entire industry to make, from the people who locate deposits of ore, to actually mine the metal, smelt it, then smith it to fit. As opposed to killing a deer, treating the hide, and sewing it into shape. My grandma could make a leather jerkin, but could she make steel greaves? I don’t think so. This is just one of many examples where the design philosophy made a complete break with simulationism, not even giving it a nod, and all for completely gamist reasons, by trying to be

Too Fair and Balanced

It is strange to think a game could be too fair and balanced, but as in many things in life, trying too hard to achieve certain ends is sure to dilute those ends. In this case, the original 4e Players Handbook was a testament to balance. Each character class was carefully weighed against the others to the point where each class started to look and feel like the others. Every class had 5 or 6 powers to choose from, and they all did a similar amount of damage, and they all had some class specific rider to each power. Wizards were good at hitting multiple targets, fighters were good at keeping the enemy focused on them, rangers were good at getting in some bonus damage on a hit – but overall, there was little feeling of difference between classes mechanically. Whether you were fighter, thief, cleric or wizard, you were punching up the enemy each round with your similar powers and doing nice homogenized lumps of damage, along with a nice bonus or two from the balanced condition chart.

Armor is another good way to look at the fairness and balance. Whether one is a steel clad warrior, or a silk robed wizard, the characters armor class rating is more than likely within a few points of each other. Sure, all classes have their strengths and weaknesses which cause the numbers to fluctuate by a point or two, but when the stats themselves start out around 20 and only go upwards from there with each level increase, a difference of a point or two is inconsequential, and therefore, equate to little difference in stats. This holds true across the board. The stat spread is very minimal. And what ends up happening is that less individualized strategy is required for each class, since they all tend to blend together. This is good and bad, but mostly bad.

We are not talking about ultra-optimized characters which can throw the whole scheme out of whack, and indeed I have heard that a melee-charging wizard can become one of the most devastating strikers in the game through wanton abuse of the system. To these I devote no time, but treat with scorn. I play the game for the fun, the stories that come out of it, and the difficult challenges that require brainpower and a little luck to survive. I do not play the game to “win” and I try to engender the same sense of sincerity to those whom with whom I play.

Recently I was reading through the Pathfinder Beginner Box, and in the section on character generation, the only method given was to roll 4d6 and take out the lowest die. There was no optimal ability score spread, just randomly generated ability scores that could produce anything from an inept weakling to an over-powered demi-god. Granted, the disadvantages of random character generation are well known, and like most gameplay problems solved by more rules, they limit the game by trying to reduce the amount of damage bad players and cheaters can do to the game. It is doomed to failure, and like many laws in our real world, these strict rules do more harm to the lawful players, and fail to stop the cheaters and bad players they are meant to curtail. In other words, if one of the players chronically rolls up over-powered characters with multiple 18’s, then that player will find a new way to abuse the system.

Unfortunately, I have found that by streamlining character creation to the point where players pick among standard arrays of ability point spreads, that this leads to cookie cutter characters with far less customizability than the rules would have you believe.

In D&D 4e there is often one best way to do things, one best power to use, one best class to take on certain roles, and it is codified to the extent that any other way of going about things is not just less than optimal, but absolutely inferior. One way this hurts individuality is that for each class there are one or two races that are just better. They have the ability scores to make a potent character, but any other race for that character archetype is sub-par, just as any other character for that race will be sub-par. There are plenty examples where certain races and classes have favored weapons, armors, skills, powers, ability scores and just about everything else, and to move outside this zone is to court disaster with under-powered characters, because modifiers are more important than dice rolling.

So there you have it, five things about the current version of my favorite game of all time, that make my life more difficult, and my game less satisfactory. In my next article, perhaps I will delve into the 500 things they got right. This is still my favorite version of the game, and even though I have started to see a few cracks, there is so much to love about the game. Most of these rough edges can be smoothed over by house-ruling and by careful planning.

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The Pathfinder Beginner Box is beautiful to behold, a joy to hold in hand, and a great introduction to the Pathfinder branded game of dungeons and dragons, also known as D&D 3.75, also known as the unofficial successor to the 3rd (and 3.5!) edition of the most famous role playing game of all time. It also happens to be the first non-dungeons and non-Wizards of the Coast role playing product I have bought in a long time. Having played D&D since the very early 1980’s, I converted over from 3rd edition to 4th a few years ago, but during that time Paizo, a long-time publisher of Dungeons and Dragons products, including the line of magazines that bears its name, chose not to embrace the new edition of the game, and instead went its own way with an updated rule-set based on the previous, 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

This schism is said to have caused a fracturing of the player-base, as it helped divide the players of the game of D&D between the current and the previous editions. This is known as “the edition war” and is not a subject of this review, only brought up in order to give a little history about how this product came to be. My own reasons for moving on from 3rd to 4th edition are myriad and not worth discussing, however enough time has passed, and this product is attractive enough, to break down my resistance against 3rd edition in general and Pathfinder in particular.

During this review, there is some comparison made between the Pathfinder Beginner Box and the its titular competitor, the Red Box Starter Set from Wizards of the Coast. It must be noted, however, that there is a vast difference in price between the two, with the Pathfinder Beginner Box selling for almost twice the cost of the Red Box. So while it may seem that the Pathfinder Box comes out ahead in many or most of these comparisons, the price difference is the great equalizer here, and I would be hard pressed to say which one is inherently better. In the end it comes down to system preference, so objectivity is difficult. It is good, though, to have a currently published version of the previous edition, in the same way that having “Old School Renaissance” products is good to keep the spirit of the previous editions alive, popular among gamers, and selling.

The Contents

The Pathfinder Beginner Box is a gorgeously crafted work of art. The box itself is big, sturdy, and covered with slick art by modern fantasy luminary Wayne A Reynolds. Iconic images, such as the Pathfinder logo, the famous Pathfinder goblins, and the new Pathfinder Black Dragon cover the box, even the unseen sides. As a fan of boxed sets, this is my favorite box yet, from the viewpoint of looks and sturdiness. It is also heavy, and heavily laden. There are no pieces of cardboard to help this pile of stuff fill the box, it does so handily all on its own.

Upon cracking it open, one is greeted first with a couple of pamphlets advertising the world of Golarion and other pathfinder products, including the Pathfinder Society Public play. It is important to remember that this is a starter product, meant as a gateway into the wider, more expensive world of the full Pathfinder experience.

The box includes a set of 7 dice. It is good to see the percentile die back, which has been suspiciously missing from the 4th edition of the game. The dice in my box were red-orange with crisp white numbering, and they were immediately hurled into my big barrel o’ communal dice, except for the d12, because I needed another one and this one matched my Dm set. Providing a set of dice is an awesome way of saying “we’ve got you covered” and providing everything needed for an aspiring Pathfinder player.

Next up in our list of contents are the cardboard miniatures. Pathfinder has done something unique here, by providing cardboard cut-outs that stand up on provided plastic bases. The cardboard cut-outs are printed on thick, high quality cardboard, and the art is colorful and clearly depicts the character or creature it represents. Since they stand up, have a 3d aspect, and can be used right alongside actual miniatures with less cost to verisimilitude, this is a much better method than the cardboard tokens provided by Wizards of the Coast in their boxed sets.

The idea that some alternative to miniatures should be provided to these largely miniatures-based games in order to facilitate play, is a good one, and it is intriguing to see the different routes taken by each company. I have found uses for the cardboard tokens and I look forward to adding these stand-ups to my repertoire of gaming aids. However, in the main, my game has used miniatures since the beginning of time, and so that short window of needing a miniature alternative for play is directly intended to new and first-time role-players. Looked at in that light, it makes perfect sense to include affordable cardboard alternatives, though they are of limited value to the experienced player.

Fitting right in with the cut-outs is the map board, called a Flip Mat since it is useable on both sides. This beauty is made of a hard, yet flexible material coated in a plastic that allows it to be marked on and wiped off by virtually any type of marker, dry or wet erase, and can be folded into typical letter size. This map board is one of the publisher’s greatest products, and they sell a whole line of double-sided Flip Mats with all sorts of maps printed on them. On one side of this map board is printed a dark dungeon full of typical hazards, traps, and chambers one might find in a dungeon. If I have a complaint about these maps, it is that they are sometimes printed too dark pick out all the details, and this dungeon map is beautiful and chock full of little elements. The other side, however is a plain grid on a yellowish-tan backing. The color is an unusual choice, but it looks like its brightness will help draw attention to whatever is drawn upon it, and that is a good thing. I suspect it is meant to represent either sandstone, desert, or an autumn field, and tan is a good generic color for standing in for many environment

These Flip Mats are not cheap, and this is one area where the Pathfinder Beginner Box is head and shoulders above its competition. The 4e Red box contains two poster maps of similar dimensions, but they are printed on paper, and lack both the sturdiness and versatility of the map board. So while Red Box gives us 4 environments suitable for play out of the box, Pathfinder gives us one dungeon, and one blank map of limitless potential. It is one of the best items in the box, and has universal appeal that will be of use long after the prospective buyer has moved beyond the status of “beginner.”

Moving in towards the meat of the product, we stop momentarily to glance over the character sheets. These come in two varieties: specific pre-generated characters, and blank character sheets. Both are printed on sturdy-eraser friendly paper, and are in full color. The four pre-generated characters are especially attractive, and made like folded pamphlets. The outer cover contains a huge full scale portrait of each the four Pathfinder iconic classes: Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, Rogue. The character sheet itself takes up the central portion of the unfolded sheet, with notes and advice around the over-sized margins.

Upon first opening the Pathfinder Beginner Box, the four iconic pre-generated character sheets leapt out as especially interesting eye-candy. Their usefulness, however, is diminished after the first couple of games, as the sheets themselves will be rather unwieldy at the game table. As a training aid, and an intro character sheet, they are perfect. The blank character sheets, on the other hand, seem to hit all the right notes that a good, one page – front and back – character sheet needs. It is in color, and there are some funny design decisions, like featuring a picture of each die type down the left margin for no apparent reason, but it looks good, and it laid out in an appealing, easy to remember way.

Now we come to the meat of the package: the Players and Dungeon masters Guides. These books are put together with the same incredible quality that the publisher Paizo is known for. In other words, they are beautiful, like the box itself, and each of the books is slick and colorful, with full color art and headings on every page. The action literally jumps out at you as you flip through the pages, and the art was placed with an eye towards sparking the imagination of the potential beginner. These guides are large with a stiff glossy cover, and a spine with the printed title, so they will look good on a bookshelf, out of the box, if that is the intent. But that is merely the looks of this pair of books, let us turn now to

The Game

The Players guide opens with a choose-your-own-adventure style introduction to role playing. This method of gently immersing the prospective role player in a fantastic story where they get to influence the character’s outcome, and maybe roll some dice and kill some monsters along the way, has been a component of every beginner box since the dawn of the role playing industry. Pathfinder does not let us down in this aspect, nor does it in most classic tropes of the beginner box, which shows that this product is well thought out, and well designed to meet the goal of introducing new players to the world of Pathfinder role playing.

After the intro, the book delves right into character creation, and it is pretty run of the mill, with a section on rolling dice for ability scores (hallelujah!); a section on the races, which are human, elf, and dwarf, and finally an overview of each of the four core classes offered, complete with all skills, abilities, and spell lists for each of the classes. These pages also include everything needed to advance characters to fifth level.

Ok, let me start by saying a short prayer of thanks for ability score rolling. After two years of playing 4th Edition, where every character had a standard array of scores, I relish the individuality that going back to ability score rolling provides. I am not saying I WANT a character with an attribute below 8, or without a perfect bell curve of scores, but it should damn well be POSSIBLE. The only rolling method advocated is to roll 4d6 and drop the lowest die and arrange in any order, which has actually been my preferred method of rolling since at least 1983. I also allow a player to subtract 2 from one score in order to raise another score by 1, which allows for slight optimization, but at a steep cost.

Moving on, it is somewhat of a surprise to see the small number of races. The halfling (hobbit) has become such an integral part of the dungeons and dragons mythos, that I was actually surprised to see its absence. It is the only difference between the 4e Red Box which has five races, including the halfling, but which game splits the elves into two types. So Red Box comes out on top with 1 extra race, the poor missing halfling. Since the iconic Elf thief is one of my favorite pathfinder characters, I am not too disappointed by this lack, but I do hope it doesn’t mean that the halfling was merely a 30 year fad that is now fading away. I love those buggers.

The four basic character classes – fighter, mage, cleric, and rogue – were all represented with a standard approach that seems little different than 3rd, or any previous, edition. The cleric had zero level orisons to match the wizard cantrips, and none of the classes had any “powers”. Instead, they had class abilities, attack modifiers, spells, and skills to take the place. This could be considered a boon or a drawback, but it is in line with previous editions, especially 3rd edition, upon which Pathfinder is based, and it is a refreshing change of pace. Too often of late, have I seen players with blinders on, who could think of nothing for their character to do that wasn’t printed on a power card.

After combat, comes skills, feats (ugh) and other necessities of a characters life, like their equipment, arms, and armor. All of this is fairly typical, and it is good to see somewhat realistic array of prices on the goods. Plat mail SHOULD be vastly more expensive than leather, and the gods of balance be damned. In fact, it is refreshing throughout the entirety of the book to see that Pathfinder will at least take a nod towards realism whenever possible, rather than to go for the purely gamist attitude when it comes to the rule set. Having all armors cost roughly the same amount of gold in 4th Edition D&D is a good example of the fair and balanced yet gamist style that that system utilizes.

I have developed a huge chip on my shoulder about complex character creation systems, and it is a constant irritation that in 4h edition it is practically impossible to create a character without a computer, an internet connection, and a monthly subscription to the Character Builder. This idea chafes against my natural tendency towards freedom, and it is one of the driving factors of my dissatisfaction with Dungeons and Dragons. However, non e of that is needed to make a Red Box character, so it shouldn’t be used as a reason to prefer this Beginner Box over that Starter Set.

In the Pathfinder Beginner Box, character creation is simple, and shouldn’t take too long. Feats were new to 3rd edition, and I am still on the fence to their worthiness. While I respect the customization it allows, the fact is that I have witnessed feats to be a HUGE drain on character creation time, and rarely used in play. Some people may have the ability to perfectly orchestrate their characters actions to provide the best use of feats, but mostly, they just go about their business and get happily surprised when a feat, such as headsman’s chop, comes into play. Then there are the “mandatory feats” which are so important that a character who has not taken them are at a disadvantage to those who have. In neither of these cases, is a good case for the inclusion of feats made. In fact, they are a detriment. Harrumph.

Skills on the other hand are a finite few which each character can use to help them in specific situations. The skill list is not much different than 3rd edition, and the way they are calculated is also not much different. Ranks are spent each level to increase a characters skill level.

After character creation, the remainder of the Player Guide is spent on combat, and here I notice one glaring omission, so important I need to scream it in all caps: THERE ARE NO OPPORTUNITY ATTACKS! Do you, gentle reader, realize what this means? It means fast and furious combat, without worrying too much about positioning. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I am certain that it allows for grid-less combat. It has been many years since I ran a combat merely in the imagination of my players, but the Pathfinder Beginner Box is giving me that itch. Anyhow, I can only assume that this is a simplification of the rules in order to facilitate play, but it is still an interesting idea.

Enough about the Players Guide. It is colorful, easy to read, and full of pictures of literally every item of equipment, weapon and armor. The character creation is quick, easy to follow, and the combat rules are clearly pared down to the basics. It makes for an interesting design choice, but one that I can approve of, though I think it is possible that the choice of narrowing down the combat rules could be considered a detriment when prospective new players attempt to advance to the core game. That said, I had no trouble advancing from the Basic rules to the Advanced D&D game when I was a kid, so Im not worried about it – it provides for a fresh quick style of combat.

The Dungeon Masters Guide jumps right into the action with an adventure – a dungeon crawl which just happens to use the provided flip-mat. This incidentally follows the Red Box design, and is also a classic element of beginner’s DM guides. The adventure is exciting, offers a wide variety of encounters, and is rife with combat, treasure, traps, and even a few role-playing opportunities.

What follows the adventure is a guide to creating one’s own adventures and plenty of good advice for the aspiring game master. The advice is helpful and very basic, by design, and covers a wide variety of issues, from pacing to puzzles. The guide then devotes a huge amount of pages to describing many of the most common elements of the adventuring environment. This guide is extremely useful and provides a wealth of detail and tables for all kinds of traps, hazards, objects, and other environmental affects. This section is divided by the type of terrain, and includes dungeons, deserts, urban, and wilderness, among many others.

The next section of the book covers the necessities of the dungeon master: magic items, monsters, and and an extensive section on random encounters. In fact, the amount of random generation possible in the guide is surprisingly high, and including treasure tables, and even extensive, random monster encounters, by region. The guide relies heavily on random tables to help out novice dungeon masters, while offering helpful advice about adventure creation along the way, and intersperses this with help for matters around the table, such as the items needed to bring to a game, to the fact that having fun should always be the main goal. The guide is well suited to this, but at the same time, the random tables should be useful for experienced dungeon masters as well.

Finally the guide ends with a quick example starting town, in this case Sandpoint, which if memory serves, is a classic introductory setting from one of the Pathfinder Adventure Paths/ The last few pages are made up of handy references for use during the game, such as the order of a combat round, and the common skill DCs. Both books feature an index.

The Pathfinder Beginner Box does everything it sets out to do in spectacular fashion: it provides a complete dungeons and dragons role playing experience. From complete neophytes, to young people, to grognards looking for an updated rule-set, this box set is all the introduction needed. What sets it apart, however, besides the absolute stunning quality of its production, is the fact that the set can provide a level of fun for not just one or two nights, but the seed of a whole campaign, spanning months of play.

Going up to 5th level is a big achievement, especially when coupled with a simplified combat system. This set is really all one needs for a complete experience. The more I think on it, the more I think the Pathfinder Beginner Box would be perfect for a low level short campaign, or a beer-n-pretzels style of game. I intend to test this theory over the holidays.

Whether or not this leads to adopting the complete Pathfinder rules, I cannot begin to fathom, but I should say that I made a conscious choice to switch from 3rd to 4th edition, and have not regretted it in the least. There are certain elements of 3rd that I miss, and this set has all of it. However, in planning my next great campaign, I am still thinking in terms of 4th edition. A quick romp, a tryst, or a low level campaign, yes this box set can provide that, but the full Pathfinder rules will be necessary for a longer game, especially a higher level game, or a game with players who expect more choice of race and class.

This game is a great introduction to the Pathfinder brand of the worlds most popular role playing game, and provides all the tools needed to get a game up and running. In addition, it is packed with value that can be used to create a complete campaign experience spanning months of real time, with characters advancing to 5th level. It has value beyond even that, with the flip-mat and the random treasure, monster, and encounter tables. It is a great learning tool for the 3rd edition rule-set and provides a slightly simplified combat system that looks built for fast, exciting combat. This boxed set is worth getting.

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Chapter 2

Sharia galloped on the wings of the storm through the empty boulevards of cursed Nazerak. Fine red sand soon covered her. The dromedarian ran blind, his drooping face turned to the side, trusting in Sharia to guide him. The flame princess exulted on the wild ride into the blowing storm. Her hair blew free, trailing long streamers of crimson sand behind her like a slashing wake in a roiling ocean. Her face was covered by a rune embroidered veil of thin silk. Through it she could breathe and see the world with silk-softened edges. The fury of the storm threatened to tear her veil away, but she paid no mind, and drove her steed on, for she was Sharia the Princess Paladin of the Spirit of the Flame, and she was fearless.

She rode through the abandoned city, following the wide expanse of the avenue of White Palms, as it passed through plazas large and small. She held her sword Skarn before her and it cut through the storm-shadows with burning light. The blade was long and curved, since its back edge was made from a bent rib-bone of a black sand shark. Embedded into the rib was a wide blade of glassy obsidian, with a mirror finish and a razor sharp chipped edge. Its pommel was hammered bronze and rubies.

From the blade’s edge, where it cut through the boiling storm of sand and dust, a creature of flame clung, nose to the wind, and its long fiery fur wreathed her blade in living flame. The spirit of the flame loved nothing more than to ride Skarn when Sharia would wield the blade. He was a sinewy creature, about as long as Sharia’s fore-arm, with a fuzzy corona of flame for a coat and a flickering tail as long as his body. He never burned Sharia, only her foes. He could disappear at will, and was known to speak on occasion.

Into the broken city center they passed. Soon the Ziggurat of Zagnazdiak loomed out of the roiling sand-clouds to her right. The avenue of the White Palms continued north to the city’s edge and beyond, but where it passed Zagnasdiak’s tomb was a battlefield sacred to her people. Sharia herself had fought here at the crossroads, leading her Jalalabar chargers against the traitorous Eldar of Albrion, but never had she approached the haunted Ziggurat itself. It was a stepped structure with a square base, composed of stone blocks. Each level was smaller than the one below, and impossibly green gardens grew on the uppermost terraces. Even in the throes of the windstorm, Sharia caught the heavy scent of its blossoms.

Sharia had a mind to give the tomb a closer inspection, and her mount responded by slowing to a walk. Sheathing her blade through a thick loop of braided hair at her waist, the spirit of the flame ran up her arm on four coal-black feet to nestle into her hair, invisible. She dismounted and gave the dromedarian a comforting pat on the rump to let it wander. The wind was shifting to sporadic gusts that told her the storm was playing itself out as quickly as it had begun. The light was changing from the burnt orange of the storm to the lighter crimson of a late afternoon. Above her, rents in the clouds formed through which the indigo sky glowed.

The stepped pyramid stretched upwards, with a stone tiled staircase cutting though all seven levels to the gardened top, whence it was said a doorway lay into the cursed tomb. From there a pathway of winding madness led to the shadow city beneath Nazerak where the dark reflection of her people dwelt, known as the shadow-eladrin. One day she would enter that door and bring battle to those cursed souls, and as she looked up tier upon tier of the pyramid rising over her, she thought the day may have come.

A low wall of crumbling sandstone surrounded the pyramid and Sharia paused at the corroded gateway into the grounds and watched the last eddies and dust devils chase each other across the boulevard. She bent to brush the red sand from her lithe limbs, then to shake the dust from her untamed hair. Her skin was pale ivory under the dust, with a rich patina of sun-stained pink cupping her musculature. Her limbs throve in the fullness of youthful vigor. She was long and curvaceous both, and her tenderest parts were armored in the mirror-burnished shell of the desert ynix, over which a flowing cloak of white and orange was cinched about a waist with a belt of gold coins whose mintage spanned millennia long gone.

Sharia was a warrior princess among a war-like people, and her poise was tall and straight, with a sharp chin up-thrust, and high tapering ears. Her eyes were wide ovals in a heart-shaped face. Her thin red lips curled up at the corners, giving her a look of perpetual amusement which was reflected in her glittering eyes. She had no fears, no worries, and no desires, other than to test her mettle against the challenges of each day anew.

After kneeling to remove a pebble from her sandal, Sharia tucked her veil down under her pointed chin, the better to sense the world around her. She was just rising, when an arrow from behind slashed past her, drawing a line of pain across her shoulder blade, and severing the leather thong that held her shell shoulder piece in place. It was aimed at her left temple, and may have ended her life, had she not started to rise just as the arrow was loosed.

Instead Sharia instinctively leapt forward while drawing her blade. She scrambled around the low wall just as a second arrow followed the first. It shrieked against the stones above her crouching form. She never saw her assailant who struck from behind, but she recognized the ivory arrows of her foe, the Albrion.

The flame princess bared her teeth at the audacity of the attack, and raised her blade to check her surroundings in its reflection. She had just time enough to see the streaking form of the third arrow as it crossed the wide open plaza from a dark doorway. She saw a puff of dust swirling around the door where the archer must be hiding. In that instant, the speeding arrow arced suddenly up and over her wall to plunge fletching deep into the sand between her legs. A rolling wind then passed over her.

“Wind strider!” she growled through grinding teeth, then crawled on hands and knees along the low wall as three more arrows peppered her last position.

There was a pause after the sixth arrow thrummed into the sand when Sharia knew instinctively that her only chance of survival was upon her. Without conscience thought her muscles flexed mightily and she leapt up and over the wall. Her long arms strained together to heave her scimitar up over her head as she leapt, and Skarn blazed like a beacon in the gathering gloom. She came down on one knee, and her heavy blade was moving so swiftly on its downward stroke that it caught the seventh arrow and split the shaft before it could split her skull.

Bouncing up and vaulting forward with her grounded blade, she ran, not for the dark doorway as she first thought, but for a narrow alleyway between two brick walls.

Her assailant was an Abrion Wind Strider as she suspected. The traitorous Eldar were a scourge in ruined Nazerak, and the two factions had been at war since the eve of Nazerak’s destruction. He wielded a bone bow, curved and recurved, and his arrows were slender darts of ivory. His clothing was distinctive, and it was told that through their clothing, the wind striders commanded the power of winds. Seeing him before her, Sharia did not doubt.

The sleeves of his jacket and the legs of his pants ended in bell shaped cuffs, large and rippling with an unknown wind. Faster than Even Sharia’s elvish eyes could follow, the wind strider pulled and loosed. His sleeves seemed to gulp up the desert breeze and then expel a churning gust that carried the arrow in its way. The arrow ripped towards Sharia in a curving arc, and she had to skid to a halt in the hot sand and slam her scimitar into the sand beside her just as the arrow slewed around on its wave of foul wind to shatter against her blade.

Again she was up and running. Ten long strides away from her quarry, her glare matched the fiery blaze of her sword, wrapped in spirit flames. She held the blade close to her cheek and where the flames ended and her hair began was hard to distinguish in that wild flight. Her foe chose to flee rather than face that wrathful aspect of righteous fury.

The eladrin wind strider crouched and leapt lightly upwards, and as he did so his cuffs snapped and exploded into the sand at his feet, creating a huge dust cloud that propelled him upwards to the top of the wall to Sharia’s left. Her velocity carried her into the cloud just after he vacated it, and it was then that another arrow from the edge of the plaza cater-corner sought Sharia as its target. It was the long range and the dust cloud that saved her, its buffeting winds causing Sharia to skitter to the side and narrowly miss scraping her bare shoulder against the cobble wall. Instead of striking her, the arrow struck the wall in front of her at an angle, snapping the slender ivory shaft.

Sharia ran down the alleyway, away from the archers. The plaza was triangulated to their advantage, and she was chagrined to turn from such odds. She came to a wider lane at the end of the short alley, and turned to her right. She ran the length of the plaza down this side lane, and after going far enough, she called to her mount. With luck, the dromedarian would be shielded from the archers by the ziggurat, if there were only two of them. She continued to call for her mount Jubul in the high pitched warbling Jalalabar chargers used to speak with their animals.

Another lane bisected this one and she slowed her pace and rounded the corner. Running down this lane, she caught glimpses the plaza through the ruins. Sharia saw her mount galloping towards a connecting alleyway ahead and she broke into a sprint. Old ruined buildings of cobble stones with gaping black windows and doorways created a narrow passage between them, and down this Sharia turned, and was caught by surprise by being caught in fact by two strong hands.

Wrinkled, long, and bony, the nut brown hands hid a powerful strength. They clapped about her arms just above the elbows, slamming her to a stop instantly and she looked up with a blank open mouthed expression into the face of her leering captor. At the other end of the alley, her mount Jubul was wrestled into submission by two more.

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