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 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 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.