Monday 7 November 2011

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box

My first introduction to role-playing games came when I was about 9 years old. A friend (we’ll call him Bob) had acquired a new game called Dungeons and Dragons and invited me and another friend (we’ll call him Fred) over to play. My first character was a thief. He had no name. Even my use of the pronoun “he” is just a convenience because we had no idea that we should give characters such details. We really didn’t have any idea what we were doing. I don’t think Bob had bothered to read much, if any, of the rules. He had bought the game because he had played it once before with someone else and was now just trying to play from memory.

We encountered a goblin that attacked and knocked out Fred’s character (something not actually possible under the rule-set we were using, but we didn’t know that). My very first decision in the game was to grab Fred’s character and run away. I don’t remember what happened after that, other than we had a great deal of fun and I was totally hooked by this unusual game. It was completely unlike anything I had ever played or heard of at the time. There was no board for a start, and all these bizarre, funny dice.

Fred lost interest in the game, but Bob and I continued playing regularly. However, the more we played, the more confused I got as it became clearer and clearer that Bob didn’t have a clue what the rules really were. He only occasionally let me glance at the rule book and I would notice things that I would ask him about. On occasion, I noticed the term “XP” and asked what that meant. He told me that they were something called experience points, but he didn’t understand them so he didn’t use them. Whenever we created characters—and we created new characters every single time we played—we would roll a d6 to determine the level of each. The number rolled had no effect whatsoever on the character. It was just a number on a sheet and a level 6 character was no different from a level 1 character. Bob didn’t understand the difference between magic items and spells either. In his games, my characters regularly found a magic missile (which, in his version of the rules did 1d10 damage) with pretty much every treasure.

About the only rule I can recall us getting right was initiative, but even that was a bit off because neither of us could pronounce the word. Bob’s pronunciation was closer to the word intuition, but not quite. I knew the pronunciation couldn’t be right and wanted to look it up in a dictionary or ask someone else about, but because I got so few looks at the rule book, I didn’t know how it was spelled. I think I tried asking my parents about it, but because I couldn’t pronounce the word and didn’t really know what it meant, they couldn’t figure out what I was talking about.

While my parents may not have understood some of the weird, mispronounced terminology I used, they did understand that I seriously enjoyed this Dungeons and Dragons game. So when my tenth birthday arrived, I opened my present from them and was excited to see my very own copy of the Dungeons and Dragons rules. But this set was rather different than the one my friend had. First of all, the box was different. His was a darker, magenta colour. This one was bright red. His only had one rulebook. This one had two: one for players and one for the Dungeon Master. (I know now that my friend had the Moldvay edition of the D&D Basic Set with the Erol Otus cover, while I had the then newly released Mentzer edition with the Larry Elmore cover, now famously known as “the Red Box”.)

I immediately dove into reading the books and actually learning the rules. I don’t remember exactly how long it took me to read them, but it wasn’t long, and I was soon teaching Bob how to play properly, and for the first time ever, I got to be the DM. Bob was a bit resistant to changing how we played at first—he had grown to like his personal version of the game—but he soon adjusted and discovered the game was even more fun when played with the actual rules. (Most of the rules, at any rate. We still didn’t quite do spells correctly. When it said that 1st-level magic users got one 1st-level spell per day, I thought it meant they got one spell period—as in, they knew only one spell and could cast that spell only once per day. I actually played like that for several years before realizing I’d been doing it wrong all along!) Very soon after that, I bought myself the Expert Set and we began moving beyond level 3. Bob then had to one-up me and got himself Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Bob moved away when I was 11 or 12 and I haven’t seen or heard from him since (we were already growing apart anyway); however, I’ve never stopped role-playing.

Even though I doubt my friend made much effort to read the rules, I’m not sure he would have understood the rules a whole lot better if he had. This is not a slam on his intelligence, but rather a criticism of his Basic Set itself. Since those days, I’ve had the opportunity to look at that edition of the rules in more detail, and they really didn’t do a very good job of teaching how to play the game. Indeed, they didn’t really make much effort to. A common problem with role-playing games (not just Dungeons and Dragons) is that the rule books tend to assume people reading them already know something about playing the game. They just lay out a bunch of rules and expect people to know what to do with them. Even ones that profess to teach the game often do a poor job because the writers, who know how to play, will leave out things that may seem obvious to them, but are not so obvious to those who have never played before.

The Mentzer edition of the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set was the first D&D product to actually do a good job at teaching the game. It took players step-by-step through both the mechanics and the process of the game. Over the years, D&D had various other attempts at introductory rules (including two published during Third Edition’s time), but alas these never did as good a job as that old Red Box. It is with good reason that the Red Box has become a major point of nostalgia amongst so many gamers, since so many learned to play with it. Indeed, the image of that boxed set has become so ingrained in gaming memory that Wizards of the Coast re-used the exact same box design for the Starter Set for 4th Edition D&D. (As I don’t play 4E, I haven’t looked at the contents of that set, so I can’t comment on how well it teaches the game to new players.)

After the end of Third Edition and during the onset of Fourth, Paizo took up the mantle of continuing 3E through the Open Gaming License. With a massive open playtest, they revised the rules and came out with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, my personal game of choice when it comes to fantasy role-playing. The Core Rulebook, however, is a massive, intimidating tome. At nearly 600 pages, it’s not the most inviting manual for people to learn how to play the game. On top of that, it’s based on the Third Edition rules, which are complex and often confusing to new players. Although it’s been revised, much of the text is lifted directly from the 3E System Reference Document, which presented the rules in as bare-bones a fashion as possible; there was no room for clarity. As a result, as much as I believe Pathfinder is an excellent game, the Core Rulebook is a very poor manual for learning how to play the game. To get any real use out of it, you have to know how to play already. This creates a major problem for bringing new players into the game. There’s a generally held maxim that the best way to learn the game (and this goes for other editions of D&D, too) is just to sit down and play with somebody who already knows how. Unfortunately, that’s not always an option to everyone who might be potentially interested.

In an attempt to solve this problem, Paizo has come out with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box. And I have to say, I think my old, beloved Red Box just got knocked out of its position as the best introductory D&D set (okay, technically, Pathfinder is not D&D since it’s not published by Wizards of the Coast and doesn’t carry the name, but it is essentially the same game as Third Edition, and so, semantics aside, the Beginner Box counts as a D&D introductory set in my mind). This is truly a beautiful product. It presents the Pathfinder rules in an easy-to-understand, streamlined manner. It makes use of lavish illustrations and diagrams to complement the instructions. It actually teaches players how to play and Game Masters how to GM.

There’s a lot of material packed into this one box. Upon opening it for the first time, players will find at the top a single welcoming sheet informing them which book or playing aide they should start with. Then beneath that single sheet come two books and several support materials. There’s a Hero’s Handbook, Game Master’s Guide, pregenerated character sheets, blank character sheets, a dry-erase flip-mat, 87 “pawns” (cardboard cut-out miniatures of characters and monsters), a set of stands for the pawns, and, of course, a set of dice (at the very bottom of the box, there’s also an advertising sheet, showing what products players can move on to next).

The Hero’s Handbook opens with a solo adventure done in the style of a choose-your-own-adventure book. As you read through the story, you are given choices to make which send you to different numbered sections of the story. As the story progresses, it gradually introduces the most basic mechanics of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, primarily the use of a 20-sided die to determine the outcome of various tasks. The old Red Box introduced the game in virtually the same manner, and I really do think this is the best way to introduce the game. Right from the start, a new player gets a taste of what the game is like and how it differs from a board game or computer game.

After the solo adventure, the Hero’s Handbook briefly describes some of the basic rules and then moves straight into character creation. From there, it goes into descriptions of skills, feats, and equipment, and then finishes with a chapter on “Playing the Game”, which includes combat. There are two main points of praise about this book (and they apply to the Game Master’s Guide, too): layout and clarity of language. The rules are explained in very simple, straight-forward language, removing the ambiguity in parts of the Core Rulebook. More than that, everything is presented in an easy-to-find format. In the Core Rulebook, you often have to jump around the book to find the descriptions of the different things you need to create a character. Here, the jumping around is kept to a bare minimum (cleric spells are included in the cleric section, for example) and when you do have to jump somewhere else, the book makes it very clear where to jump to. It makes heavy use of colour and icons to help with visual learning. The character creation section has clear letter labels that coincide with labels on the sample character sheets so you can always see exactly where everything goes. The descriptions of skills and feats use small pictures of the iconic characters for each class to show which classes benefit the most from each skill and feat. These go hand-in-hand with suggestions for how to pick the best skills and feats for your character.

Of course, the rules in the Beginner Box have been streamlined quite a bit. There are only four classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard) and three races (dwarf, elf, human). There are fewer spells and feats, and their respective descriptions have been shortened and simplified. There are no attacks of opportunity or combat manoeuvres, and the game only goes to fifth level, so higher-level abilities, such as iterative attacks, are naturally absent. It’s important to note that the Beginner Box is not a different game than the Core Rulebook in the way that the old Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set was a different game than Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. The Beginner Box is an introduction to the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, not the beginning of a separate line. No rules in the Beginner Box have been changed; some have merely been omitted, and can be easily added back in when players decide to move from this box to the Core Rulebook. There’s no need to create new characters in order to switch to the full game. I think this is a very good thing.

One of the most amazing aspects of the Hero’s Handbook (and the entire Beginner Box) is that it manages to present the rules so succinctly. Even combat takes just a few short pages. Although things like attacks of opportunity are gone, the rules for combat in Pathfinder remain quite complex. In the past, combat has generally taken up huge amounts of space in the rulebooks (only spell descriptions have ever really surpassed it in page count), but here the combat rules only take up a relatively small portion of the book. And it still manages to present them in an easy-to-follow manner.

The Game Master’s Guide opens with a short introductory adventure called “Black Fang’s Dungeon”. It’s a straightforward dungeon-crawl that teaches an aspiring Game Master how to run a typical game. As an adventure, it’s really nothing special. Its premise is nothing more than ‘PCs go into dungeon, defeat monsters and traps, and find treasure.’ There’s even a dragon at the end of it. However, as a learning tool, it’s extremely well-done. Each encounter area gets a full-page devoted to it (the final encounter with the dragon gets a page and a half). Along with the standard description of the area (complete with read-aloud text for the PCs), there are complete instructions for how to handle each of the encounter types found in each area, from combat, to traps, to hazards.

After “Black Fang’s Dungeon”, the Game Master’s Guide contains chapters on “Gamemastering”, creating adventures, the environment, and of course, magic items and monsters. Like the Hero’s Handbook, they are all laid out in a visually appealing manner, with succinct and clear descriptions of the rules. Like the descriptions of feats and spells, the descriptions of magic items have been shortened and simplified, and contain icons indicating which classes can get the most use out of each item. The monster descriptions are incredibly concise, with each monster taking up only half a page including a picture. While these descriptions are designed for people using the streamlined rules of the Beginner Box, they could also work quite well as summaries for people using the complete Core Rulebook, as the only missing information that might be needed for a single standard encounter is the monster’s CMB and CMD. It is amusing to see monster entries for “Evil Cleric”, “Evil Fighter” (and so on). This takes me back to the early days of D&D, where such things were also in the monster sections of the rulebooks. Their inclusion here is more than nostalgia, though. It means that the Game Master’s Guide doesn’t need to spend a lot of time describing how to create NPCs. It simply provides stock NPCs that the GM can adjust as needed (or not at all if preferred).

Also included in the Beginner Box is a flip-map. One side contains the map for “Black Fang’s Dungeon” and the other side is blank, allowing GMs to draw their own adventure maps. Both wet-erase and dry-erase markers work on the flip-mat. As the Pathfinder RPG can be quite miniatures-reliant, the inclusion of this map in miniature scale is an important part of the product.

Of course, being a miniatures-reliant game, the box also needs miniatures. Unfortunately, metal or plastic miniatures can be quite expensive, and including them in the box probably would have driven the price up to amounts that would deter most potential players from buying. So, the Beginner Box instead includes 87 “pawns”, cardboard cut-out miniatures with plastic stands to mount them in. There are male and female pawns for each character class, a pawn for each “iconic” character, and pawns for all the monsters in the Game Master’s Guide. Each pawn is full-colour and two-sided. Some people might be disappointed that both sides of the pawns show the same picture rather than a front and a back. However, given that there is no facing in Pathfinder, it’s understandable why the pawns are this way. Printing a “front” on both sides removes any confusion that might be caused by having a pawn facing a particular direction yet the character still seeing what is “behind” her.

The pawns are the part of the Beginner Box that even experienced players can get a lot of use out of. I’ve already started using them in my own games, freely mixing them with the metal and plastic miniatures I already own. Some people might find the mixture of metal and flat cardboard a bit jarring. However, gamers with limited budgets often have to make use of miniatures that don’t fit the monster being portrayed or items that aren’t technically even miniatures (board game pieces, dice, chits of paper, etc.). These gamers are already used to jarring.

The final evaluation of whether or not an introductory set works comes down to whether or not it can successfully teach someone who has no previous experience with role-playing games (particularly young players) how to play the game. For experienced role-players, it can be difficult to judge, as what seems simple to us might not be so simple to someone learning the game. I do know that during development, Paizo tested the set on teenagers who had no previous experience with RPGs, and that it tested very positively. Unfortunately, I don’t have any such person available to verify for myself. However, I can draw on my years as a teacher to say with quite a bit of confidence that this set will successfully teach the game. The box states that it is suitable for ages 13 and up, and this is definitely true. I suspect that even many 10- to 12-year-olds will also be able to follow the rulebooks and learn the game from them. Of course, only time will really tell for sure, but I suspect that the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game may find itself with many new players soon thanks to this excellent set.


  1. Brilliant origin story and nice review of the Beginner Box. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy soon.

    - Jerall

  2. Immediately after I saw Pathfinder box I understood that this article will be great! But come on, 9 years old playing RPGs? This is awesome! Unfortunately, I discovered things like D&D and Pathfinder only in 23+. If only I could go back in time when I was 13 and gave myself a rulebook, my life could be different…