Thursday 1 October 2015

Strategy Guide

One of the biggest criticisms that can be made against the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is that it is difficult to learn. It's a complicated game with a lot of rules and options. At over 550 pages long, the Core Rulebook's sheer size can make the game seem intimidating to new players. Its size aside, however, the Core Rulebook is still not an easily penetrable tome. Its layout is not the most intuitive. Making a character requires jumping around to various parts of the book in order to find appropriate descriptions. For the most part, the layout of the book is based around categories (feats in one section, skills another, spells another, and so on). This works great for players who already know how to play, but much less so for people new to the game. And that is its greatest weakness: it assumes people already know how to play and gives only the barest acknowledgement to learning how. This is due, in part, to the fact that with so many rules, there just isn't room for instruction. It's also due to the fact that Pathfinder is a revision of 3.5 Dungeons & Dragons and its initial target audience was people switching from that game, and thus, already knowing how to play.

But times change. Pathfinder has grown well beyond its roots and is attracting lots of new players to the game. A few years ago, Paizo released the Beginner Box, which presents a streamlined version of the rules aimed at introducing new players—particularly young ones—to the game. The Beginner Box is a wonderful product (see my review linked above) and is easily one of the best introductions to a D&D-style game I have had the pleasure to read. However, the Beginner Box is still a beginner game. It doesn't contain all the rules and options available in the full Pathfinder game, and at some point, people are going to want to make the jump from beginner game to full game.

Going from the Beginner Box to the Core Rulebook is certainly easier than going straight to the Core Rulebook without anything before it. However, it still means going from a rulebook that is easy to understand and beautifully laid out to one that is much more dense and less forgiving of rules ignorance. And what of people who don't want to play a beginner version of the game and just want to go straight to the full game, while still being able to learn the rules? That's where the Strategy Guide comes in.

Before getting into what the Strategy Guide is, it's probably best to cover exactly what the Strategy Guide is not. It is not a guide to playing at an “advanced” level. It does not provide ways to create the most powerful, most optimized characters. In short, its target audience is not experienced players. Indeed, there are many players for whom this book will be mostly useless. If you've been playing for a while and you know what you're doing, this book may not be for you. This is something that I know has caused some confusion, as it's possible to read the name of the book and assume it's for advanced players. This is why reading the description on the back of a book is generally a good idea before purchasing (or reading the description provided on a web page if purchasing online). It can save a lot of surprise, disappointment, and needless anger.

The Strategy Guide is also not a replacement for the Core Rulebook. The Strategy Guide can help teach you how to create a character and play the game, but you'll still need the full rules for things like feat and spell descriptions. The book also can't cover every possible situation, so does refer readers to the Core Rulebook for more information on numerous occasions.

So just what is the Strategy Guide? Well, to quote the book itself, it's “both a guide for new players and a handy teaching reference for experienced players” (p. 5). In other words, it's a resource to help bring new players into the game. Its target audience is made up of two types of people: 1) people who are new to the whole game or an aspect of the game, and 2) people looking for ways to help teach others the game. I fit into the second category. I have no personal need for this book myself, as I've been playing a long time and know what I'm doing. However, I usually GM, I've met a lot of gamers, and over the years, I've introduced a lot of people to the game. Looking back, a book like the Strategy Guide would have been very useful on many occasions.

When opening the book, it is very quickly clear that Paizo learned a lot from making the Beginner Box. Many of the techniques employed in that set are used again in this book, from heavy use of colour coding and icons to straight-forward, clear language that describes exactly what you need to know in an easy-to-understand manner. Indeed, this book is visually beautiful. Every aspect of its presentation, from pictures to headers to sidebars, is carefully designed to guide your eyes to exactly where they need to go. Never does any of the information look like a chaotic jumble of words and charts that lack coherency. Instead, everything looks inviting and easy to digest. For people like me, who are not visual learners, this great attention to layout is an even greater boon, as it helps overcome the difficulties non-visual learners can have with learning visually. As a teacher myself, I'm well aware of the importance of presentation in successfully conveying information to a wide variety of people who learn in different ways. The presentation in the Strategy Guide is top-notch.

But what about the content of the Strategy Guide? As with most Pathfinder books, it opens with a brief description of what the book is and the topics it will cover. It then moves into an introduction to the important terms and concepts found in the game. Pathfinder uses a lot of terminology, some of it confusingly conflicting (like character levels versus spell levels). This section brings all the most important terms together in one space. It doesn't go into heavy detail, but does provide just enough information so that people will have at least a basic familiarity with these terms when they show up later.

After this, the Strategy Guide moves into the main meat of the book: characters and character creation. Yet unlike the Core Rulebook, which goes straight to rolling dice or using point-buy to generate ability scores, the Strategy Guide starts of with, What do you want to play? Through a brief quiz, it allows new players to develop an idea of the type of character they want to play in the game. Do they want to be someone who dives head-first into combat, or a sneakier character who use guile to win the day? Do they want to cast spells? Do they want to be heavily armoured? And so on. Players' answers to these questions provide them with one of 26 character themes (2 each for most character classes, except cleric, druid, sorcerer, and wizard, which each get 3). Each theme gets a half-page description, which introduces players to that theme's main aspects, some suggested races, and what page to turn to for the class description. Each theme also has a unique icon. The themes are referenced throughout the book and these icons allow easy identification of which theme is being discussed. Immediately following the themes is a brief section on races, where the key abilities of each race are summarized.

The book then moves into the “Class Guides”, starting with a general overview of what is common to all classes, as well as instructions on how to read skill, feat, and spell descriptions in the Core Rulebook. An overview of the standard Pathfinder RPG Character Sheet (the one at the back of the Core Rulebook) is provided as well, broken up into sections that are clearly labelled with letter coding that can be referred back to later in the book. Each of the eleven core classes then gets its own separate guide that provides players with everything they need to create a character of that class and level that character up through all 20 levels! (The Strategy Guide does not cover classes like witch or magus, only the core classes from the Core Rulebook.) Along with what you get at each level, the guides also include suggested feat, skill, and spell choices (and also class-specific choices like rage powers or rogue talents) based on your character's theme. The guides are very clear on when something is just a suggestion and when something is automatic (such as a ranger automatically gaining Endurance at 3rd level, but also getting a feat of your choice at 3rd level).

The layout here is similar (though not identical) to the style used in the Beginner Box, with every single level looked at separately, rather than the Core Rulebook's method of providing a table for level advancement and describing class abilities in the order gained. It's a method that may at first look odd to experienced players used to the Core Rulebook and may feel like its taking up a lot of space with redundant information, but to new players, it's incredibly easy to follow, and there's never any need to remember the things that aren't on the Core Rulebook's class tables (like the feats every character gains every odd level regardless of class) as all that information is included.

As easy to follow as the class guides are, however, there is one area where they might create confusion, and that's if players decide to multiclass somewhere down the line. The guides don't differentiate between abilities that characters get based on character level and the ones based on class level. They assume single-classed characters all the way to 20th level. I can fully understand that space limits how much they can toss into this book, and multiclassing is a more “advanced” option, thus not really fitting the beginner focus of the book. However, multiclassing is briefly mentioned in the sidebar about favoured class (p. 33), and it is an option in the Core Rulebook, which this book is aimed at teaching players how to use (it would be different if multiclassing were introduced in another book, like the Advanced Player's Guide). I think it would have been helpful to have included a sidebar about multiclassing and to indicate in the class guides which things are based on character level and which on class level. As it is, someone playing a fighter 1/cleric 4 who has just advanced to cleric 5 might think that she gets a feat at this level since the cleric guide says you gain a feat at 5th level.

That aside, the class guides are truly phenomenal and contain huge amounts of detail. New players will be able to take their (single-classed) characters from 1st to 20th level with ease, and won't be left confused about how to level their character. I did notice one small oversight, though. The druid guide makes no mention of druids' ability to spontaneously cast summon nature's ally spells. I'm not sure how this was missed.

While the class guides take up the bulk of the Strategy Guide, they are not the whole of it. After the class guides, the book takes a look at the actual playing of the game. Combat, of course, covers a significant part of this. The Strategy Guide spends roughly the same number of pages on combat as the Core Rulebook does and does it in a much easier-to-follow manner. It goes step by step through everything you need and includes flow-charts, tables (a separate table for each kind of action, such as standard actions and free actions, listing all the actions that fall under that category), and diagrams. Combat in Pathfinder can be complicated, but this chapter just about succeeds at making it look simple. It even includes tactical suggestions for common circumstances and advice for how each class and theme might want to approach combat.

Of course, there's more to the game than combat, and the latter part of the book delves into topics such as narrative play, dungeon delving, diplomacy, scouting, and more. There's even some general “Advice for Better Gaming”. This includes such simple things as showing up on time and being respectful of the host, the GM, and other players. But it also contains advice about thinking ahead, avoiding metagaming, and not betraying your other party members.

At the very end of the book, there is a four-page section introducing people to the Pathfinder Society—the real-world one, not the in-game Golarion organization. It describes what organized play is and how it is different from home games, as well as tells how people can join. While I, personally, am not a fan of organized play (for a number of reasons not relevant to this review), one strength of organized play is that it helps players connect with other players—something invaluable to a new player who happened to pick up the game because she saw it in the store, but doesn't currently know anyone else who plays.

As a whole, the Strategy Guide is a great resource for introducing players to the full Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, whether they are coming from the Beginner Box, have played a few times before but are still confused about elements of the rules, or are jumping straight into the game with no prior experience. While you will still need the Core Rulebook to play the game, this book is far less intimidating than that heftier tome, and succeeds at explaining the game far, far better. It's a book I'm proud to have on my shelf and I will be eagerly lending it out to new players who join my games in the future.