Since our two year long 4e campaign just ended, we are cleansing our gaming pallets over the holiday season by playing some other games. This week we played the Pathfinder beginner box. The players used the pre-generated characters, and I used the introductory adventure, Black Fang. The game was a rollicking blast, and we completed the adventure, all ten encounter areas including five fights, in three and a half hours of free-wheeling fun.
Battles were incredibly fast, and the exploration was rife with many common fun-house dungeon features, including magic pools and trapped treasures. The game almost played like first edition basic/AD&D. Circumstances of many of the fights, such as cramped conditions and difficult terrain meant that most characters only took single actions on their rounds. This and the fact that the characters had only a few spells, skills, or weapons, meant that their main actions were usually straight-forward and quick to resolve. One of the classic hallmarks of low level play, besides character frailty, is limited options, and first level Pathfinder characters are no exception, though they made sure that every character had something worth doing every turn. And just as I hoped, the complete lack of opportunity attacks meant that much less emphasis was made on positioning, which sped up play vastly, and sometimes the miniatures and battle-mat were no more than afterthoughts.
By now, everyone around the table is familiar with dungeons and dragons, role-playing, and the basics of monsters, traps, and the game in general. Half the players had 3e experience. Most of the players have been around the dungeon block a time or two, so to speak, so these factors all combined to allow us to really get the most out of the adventure: savoring the role play, knowing the trap is about to fire, but going forward anyway, diving into the black black water to retrieve the glowing pile of loot – and even doffing armor beforehand. Rope, who doesn’t have fifty feet? Listening, searching, poking ,prodding, it was dungeons and dragons spelunking at its most basic, just like the box advertised. We blew through it and enjoyed every moment.
The party of seven included two clerics (the twins) two wizards (dumb and dumber) two fighters – the brains of the group (Eeoow!) and an elf rogue who got eaten (oops). Each of the four iconic classes are well represented by the pre-gens, who have great spells, skills, and other class and race abilities.
With both clerics and wizards all having detect magic at will, there was a lot of detecting going on. Like search beams throughout the entire dungeon and like tri-corders inspecting every find, these detectors could find and strip any magical object down to its bare bones in seconds. I tried to dampen the rampant magic and described many things like the potions for example, by their knowledge, rather than glowing, like by its pink bubbly fizz the wizard knew the levitation, and by its rich orange flavor, the cure light wounds. I like the division of arcane and divine powers that is so drastic in fourth edition, and it seemed like clerics and wizards should not overlap in thei detection. When, for example, a cleric cast detect magic on a looted wand, I described it as having s slippery feeling, and that she needed to hand it to a wizard for proper detection. Other than that, I really didn’t mind the ease with which magic items were detected, and the fact that wands had charges, and would run out eventually, added some coolness to it.
The funniest moment of the night came when the goblin, who only knew a few words of common, described his missing dragon toy with flapping wings by pantomiming yanking its tail over and over while saying “me want toy!” I go for the laugh, no matter how low or distasteful.
One major difference I felt, but would have a hard time pinpointing specific differences, is that Pathfinder tilts more in the direction of simulation, while Fourth Edition comes down on the more “gamist” side of the equation. Armor felt more realistic, with fighters having the highest, and wizards the lowest. Having a swim skill, and using it, was somehow nice. The thief being the only character with thievery was a good change of pace.
One cleric was blessing, curing and healing up a storm the whole time, while the other cleric never healed anyone, but instead tore through enemies with a scimitar, or made impossible shots with a sling. Each of the classes are carefully constructed to provide a rich gaming experience, and the cleric seems to have been given big upgrades, and has tons of healing available in the form of channel energy. Ironically, though the potion was called cure light wounds, the cleric had no spell as such, but instead the heal and turn undead feature is combined into “Channel energy” useable half a dozen times a day. If we played correctly, then it would seem every time a cleric uses it to channel positive energy, EVERYONE in the thirty foot burst gains 1d6 hit points. It is powerful, and other than the few daily spells, and the constant beam of detect magic, the cleric is well armored and armed with both scimitar and sling.
The wizard has his own tricks. In addition to the detect magic, they can cast a ray of frost each round for 1d3 – not too shabby. They have 2 or three daily spells besides the ray, but the wizard was not left out of the “something to do every round” sweep, and the ray of frost becomes puny beside the amazing staff hurling abilty (which I dubbed the Blunt Spear technique) and was actually the wizards best at will power. This meant the wizard never had to resort to his dagger or crossbow, unlike previous editions. Magic missile required no to hit roll, and was the ultimate demise of the big bad Black Fang, by a twice-unconscious wizard lying on the ground at its feet.
The fighters were as they should be, masters of weaponry and taking the physical approach. They beat, they bashed, they swam and climbed their way though the dungeon, and led with their chins. I love fighters. One of them had a short bow, and used it well, and even picked up a goblin short sword for the high crit, which paid off! The other won the magic sword and took it to deal great wrath to Black Fang.
And finally there was the elf rogue Merisiel, who searched out and set off and disabled every trap she found, and managed to back stab a spider, though she was injected with a double-damage dealing diseased spider bite that gave her instant stomach pains. She would not suffer them for long however, when she attempted to bluff Black Fang at the end, by claiming fealty. He demanded to see her worthiness and called for her to come forward and kneel before him, which she did. The wizard (dumber) had just time enough to rush forward before Black fang judged his new minion “No, unworthy” and raising his head, he blasted a great torrent of acid which glanced of the rogue and coated wizard, instantly knocking him out, before splashing violently against the back wall. Behind them, the rest of the party flung stones and shot arrows from the balcony. Thanks guys, we got this!
One of the clerics came forward to heal the unconscious and foolhardy wizard. (Or was he? One theory suggests that the wizard may have run forward in some vain attempt to “rescue” or otherwise save his damsel, or possibly even sacrifice himself for her.) The dragon was happy to have two snacks before him and after a flight of ranged attacks towards him, including a savage arrow strike that did quadruple damage and tore open his throat, thanks to a critical hit card, the dragons turn came around again. Most of the characters were still stuck on the stairs.
TA rogue and wizard were within his reach, and so it was time for the infamous claw-claw-bite. First claw fells the foolish wizard (for the second time) and the second claw fells the rogue who had stood her groundand tore into his soft underbelly with her knives. He is left with one choice: which one to bite? Gulp, the discerning dragon will always choose elf flesh, and so poor unconscious Merisiel was swallowed whole (by taking her below -10 with the bite attack.) One cleric quaffed her levitation potion (good use of acquired loot!) and came to rest beside the fallen wizard, healing him just enough to remain woozily half conscious and propped up on an elbow – at zero hit points, which meant a single action. He fired his magic missile into the bleeding and gashed open throat of the dragon, and slew the beast.
The beginner box is a perfect product for a fast and furious game of “basic” d&d which after all these years of numbers crunching “new school” complexity comes as a refreshing change of pace. I could see playing a mini campaign up to level five taking anywhere from 3 months to a year of real time. This sounds pretty good, and right about where my attention and passion for grand campaigns stand.
Unfortunately, there is one thing holding this game back from being my players first choice. Even though I am sure I could convince them to choose amongst four classes and races, there would be lots of overlap, and they immediately pointed out that they prefer the huge range of character classes and races that 4e offers. This alone sways the argument in favor of 4e. The full Pathfinder experience might close the gap of races and classes, but then we are adding the complexity of 3e mechanics back into the game, by which I mean opportunity attacks mainly, and the avalanche of feats, secondarily. So in the end Pathfinder Beginner Box was an amazing experience, with lots of potential, but its elegant simplicity is marred by the lack of character options todays players like to see. 4 and 4 is just not enough – or 5 counting the online addition of the beginner barbarian.
For casual pick up games, one night beer-n-pretzel games, or for teaching the basics of any edition of dungeons and dragons it is just about perfect. For a group experimenting with Pathfinder, I think it does a great job of getting the feel of the system, without becoming burdened down by more complex rules. In this way it reminds me of the ad&d/basic edition divide of the 1980’s, which I suspect is exactly what Paizo has in mind, considering the name. One can only hope that they will soon release an “Expert Box Set” and if it contains more character class and race options, this could turn into a full fleshed out game experience. Pathfinder is blazing a trail into the future of dungeons and dragons, or at least in to one possible future, and I like what I see.
Pathfinder Beginner Box is the Return of Basic Dungeons and Dragons.