Friday, 6 September 2013

Pathfinder Society Primer

Pathfinder is a word with quite a few meanings. Ignoring the vehicle, the branch of the Girl Guides, a movie or two with that name, and so on, even within the context of the roleplaying game published by Paizo, it has several meanings. It is the name of the game itself (which was named after the Pathfinder Adventure Path), it is the name of an in-game organization of adventurers and treasure seekers, and it is also the name of a real-world organized play society (in which players play members of the in-game Pathfinder Society). It makes a certain kind of sense that, because it shares the same name as the game, the in-game society would gain a certain amount of extra attention. It likewise makes a suitable vessel for creating a real-world organized play society around. As such, it’s not surprising that there would be a full book devoted to it. What is perhaps surprising is that there are now three.

The first book was Seekers of Secrets. Then came the Pathfinder Society Field Guide. Now, there’s also the Pathfinder Society Primer. Admittedly, the first two books weren’t all that good. They were also part of the Campaign Setting line (meant primarily for gamemasters, even though there’s a lot useful for players in both books), while the new Primer is part of the Player Companion line (for players, obviously). Nevertheless, three books on the same group seems like a bit of overkill, especially when no other organization has gotten even a single book to itself. Generally, organizations have to share space with other organizations, such as the knightly orders in Knights of the Inner Sea. On some of those occasions, such as in the Faction Guide, these organizations even have to share space with...yes, the Pathfinder Society. I suppose that, since the real-world Pathfinder Society is focused around the exploits of their in-game namesake, the real-world society needs some extra material, but nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that the Pathfinder Society (the in-game one) really doesn’t need any more material about itself.

In looking at the Pathfinder Society Primer, I have done my best to look at the merits of the book on its own and not let my bias about the number of books on the subject cloud my judgements. That said, this book does not exist in isolation. It’s part of a series (or rather, several series) of books, and its place within that series is important too, so I cannot completely ignore that it is the third book on the same basic topic. In cases such as the Pathfinder field agent prestige class, it is very relevant.
The Pathfinder Society Primer is a bit of a dry read, but it does a good job of providing a player-centric overview of the society and how to create characters who are members of the society. As with other Player Companion books on types or groups of characters (like Knights of the Inner Sea or Pirates of the Inner Sea), it’s not vital for players to have the book in order to create such characters, but those who do will find some benefit from it. Perhaps the best aspect of the Primer is that it provides player-specific information in one place rather than mixing it in with GM material, like in Seekers of Secrets and the Pathfinder Society Field Guide.

The inside front cover of the book contains a useful map showing the locations of Pathfinder lodges across the Inner Sea Region, including inactive lodges and the Grand Lodge in Absalom. The book itself then opens with an overview of the Society’s core values and organizational structure before discussing characters’ choices and providing a role and a couple of item kits for Pathfinders. It then discusses how characters join the Pathfinder Society: either through training, or field commission. The book does not go into much detail about the training process other than mentioning a series of tests to get in, followed by three years of training, and then a final test called the Confirmation. It definitely does not include any of the rather immoral training methods (confinement to the Grand Lodge, virtual slavery, and exceedingly harsh penalties for rule-breaking) discussed in Seekers of Secrets. While I have no problem with organizations having darker undersides (such things can add fun to the gaming experience), for a group that Paizo markets as an ideal one for PCs to join (and which every member of the real-world Pathfinder Society must join), it is a wise decision to quietly ret-con these less altruistic bits.

There are quite a few new feats scattered throughout the book. The first six are in the section on joining the Pathfinders—three for those who join by training, three for members with a field commission, although there doesn’t really seem to be any reason why trained members can’t take a field commission feat or vice versa.

The next sections of the book look at the three main divisions within the Pathfinders: the Scrolls, the Spells, and Swords. The Scrolls are devoted to the acquisition of knowledge, while the Spells devote themselves to magical and mystical dealings. The Swords, on the other hand, focus their attentions on perfecting their combat abilities. All three sections contain new spells, feats, and traits, and the Swords section also contains a new magic weapon property—deceptive, which provides bonuses to feint and allows an immediate action feint on a critical hit. The traits and spells are all interesting and useful (in the right circumstances), but the feats are a bit of a mixed bag. Cut Your Losses is a particularly interesting and fun one. It allows you to grab an unattended object or unconscious ally as part of a withdraw action—a great way to retreat without abandoning your fallen friends! On the other hand, Collective Recollection is a feat that offers no real advantage for taking it. It is a teamwork feat (meaning you can only use it with someone else who also has the feat) that allows you to aid another on Knowledge skill checks. To be honest, I never realized that this was something that couldn’t be done without the feat. As with using aid another with any skill, I’ve always judged whether it can be used based on the circumstances. There are certainly circumstances where it makes sense that people can discuss their knowledge with each other and help jog their own memories. However, even assuming that you can’t normally use aid another with Knowledge checks, I can’t imagine many people taking a feat that only occasionally gives them a +2 bonus to Knowledge checks and then, only if the other person also has the same feat and is within 30 feet of you.

The central two pages of the book contain descriptions of six prominent Pathfinder lodges from across Golarion, including the Lantern Lodge in Goka in Tian Xia (the only lodge here that is not on the map on the inside front cover). The descriptions also come with beautiful black-and-white sketches of the buildings, and portraits of the lodges’ venture-captains.

Following this is a new prestige class: the Pathfinder field agent. I think it’s important that prestige classes be tied to organizations or other specific groups within a campaign setting, but there’s a point where it gets to be too much. Much like I feel there are too many books on the Pathfinder Society itself, there are too many Society-specific prestige classes. Most organizations get no more than one (if even that many). The Pathfinder Society now has five. The Core Rulebook has the Pathfinder chronicler. Seekers of Secrets introduced three more: the Pathfinder delver, the Pathfinder savant, and the student of war. The Pathfinder field agent really doesn’t stand out amongst these, especially as its abilities are rather unfocused. Pathfinder training is one ability gained at 1st level and every third level. It works much like rogue talents do—indeed, one of the abilities you can select is “rogue talent”, which allows you to select a rogue talent. Pathfinder field agents also gain some bonus teamwork feats and abilities to upgrade wayfinders. The tenth-level ability, legends uncovered, works like the spell legend lore. Overall, I’m not really sure what the Pathfinder field agent is trying to be, other than a bit of a jack-of-all-trades character. Yet a jack-of-all-trades, which makes sense for the Pathfinder Society, doesn’t really work as a prestige class. It would be better to simply go with a bard or rogue, or just multiclass.

The next few sections include a number of new magic items, in particular new wayfinders and ioun stones. To be honest, I’ve never found wayfinders all that interesting. They’re basically compasses that can cast light. However, they are essentially iconic symbols of the Pathfinder Society, items that every Pathfinder must have at least one of. It makes sense that there would be all kinds of variant wayfinders, much like you can get all sorts of different kinds of cell phones in the real world. There are seven variant wayfinders in this book that you can add to other variants in Seekers of Secrets and the Pathfinder Society Field Guide. One key property of wayfinders is that you can add an ioun stone to a socket in a wayfinder, allowing you to gain the abilities of the ioun stone without it orbiting your head, as well as possibly unlock some additional powers. It’s not surprising then that there are also a number of new ioun stones in the book, along with the resonant powers they gain when added to wayfinders. The other magic items in the book include a variety of items that would be of benefit to Pathfinders.

The next section of the Primer covers the Pathfinder Chronicles, a series of books detailing the exploits of famous Pathfinders. Although these are not magical items, characters who read volumes of the Chronicles can gain specific skill bonuses. I like the idea of being able to gain non-magical improvements to skills without gaining a level, as it makes real-world sense. Admittedly, these bonuses only last for 24 hours, and you must read the volume for a minimum of one hour each day to get them back for another 24 hours. After a while, you’d expect a person would have it memorized, but such are the realities of dealing with game mechanics and game balance.

This section is followed by a section on “vanities”, special perks that can be gained by spending prestige points (a system used by the real-world Pathfinder Society and detailed in the Faction Guide). The final section of the book discusses getting involved with the real-world organized play society.

The best parts of the Pathfinder Society Primer are the numerous sidebars throughout the early sections of the book, offering insights into things such as “Famous Pathfinder Society Discoveries”, “Advice for Neophytes”, and “Allies” and “Enemies of the Pathfinder Society”. These help add a lot of flavour and colour to an otherwise dry text.

Overall, the Pathfinder Society Primer serves its purpose of helping players create characters who are members of the Pathfinder Society. However, while there are a lot of new mechanical options, you won’t likely learn much about the Society itself beyond the bare bones. There is very little “fluff” content in here, perhaps because this is the third book on the Society. While the feats, spells, wayfinders, and other items are all new and not repeated from the previous books, there is still a feeling of “more of the same” here. How many prestige classes or new wayfinders does the Pathfinder Society really need? Not as many as are available, I can’t help but feel. Instead of three books on the Pathfinders, it would be nice to see a book on one of the other major organizations of Golarion. I’d personally really like to see a book on the Aspis Consortium.

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