Today is the Day.
Pathfinder Beginner Box
After months of hype, interviews, seminars, previews, wallpapers and unboxing videos, Paizo’s Pathfinder: Beginner Box hits hobby stores and bookstores across North America on Wednesday October 26, 2011. So was all the hype worth it? Of course not; however, that’s not the real question. The real question is a lot simpler than that: Will the Pathfinder Beginner Box make it easier to learn the rules and become a Pathfinder Player or GM? The answer to that question is an unqualified YES.
Why There is a Beginner Box
Let’s be honest. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook is awfully impressive at 576 pages long. It’s pretty, it’s heavy and its combined approach to a Player’s Handbook and GM's Guide all under one cover has exceeded everyone’s expectations in terms of its ongoing market success. The reason the Core Rulebook exists in the first place defines how it came to be made and what it was intended to be used for. In turn, those assumptions defined whom the book was to be principally aimed at and how it was to be used.
To steal a phrase, the Pathfinder Core Rulebook was “Created by Gamers for Gamers.” That may sound like a clever corporate motto, but it belies a deeper truth. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook is not designed to help you become a gamer -- it assumes you already are one. It does not seriously attempt to teach you how to play Pathfinder RPG -- it assumes for the most part that you already know how, or at the very least, that you are surrounded by other players who already know how to play Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder and are able to teach you how to play. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook is not a book intended to be read from cover to cover; rather, it is a reference work to be referred to as needed, accessed through the index or chapter headings in order to locate the right spot in the text to clarify a rule or spell or item during play. The book is then put back down until needed again. It is a reference book, plain and simple.
And let’s be fair: the Pathfinder Core Rulebook is a big-ass book, too. It is not Ptolus/World’s Largest Dungeon/Tome of Horrors Complete big, but as improvised books-as-weapons go, it is clearly a two-handed book. After spending eight years in university, I can confirm that MOST university textbooks I had over that time were slimmer and less dense than the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. Consequently, it is an intimidating and inaccessible book to new players and despite mounting evidence to the contrary – it is hard to see how that can be good for Paizo’s business in the long term. Unless Paizo is content to be forever a recipient of WotC’s castoffs, it needs some other way to introduce players to role-playing games and become a gateway game to the RPG hobby.
That goal is the entire point to the Beginner Box. Unlike the Core Rulebook or any of Paizo’s other hardcover rulebooks, the Beginner Box is designed to be a gateway product -- to teach a player how to play and how to be a GM, too. Moreover, all of this is aimed at teaching a new player all of these things from a standing start, without anybody else around them who already know how to play to guide the experience. That is the aim of the Beginner Box.
Does the product achieve that goal? As far as teaching the rules go -- yes, it achieves that goal rather brilliantly. It’s not perfect and there is one significant “plot hole” which emerges over time within the text of the rulebooks that come within the Beginner Box; however, when it comes to teaching crunch and mechanical design elements of the rules to Pathfinder RPG, the Pathfinder Beginner Box gets an “A”.
I have discussed the essential components of the Beginner Box in my preview of the product and Erik Mona, Publisher at Paizo in his unboxing video, has presented the contents.
The Beginner Box itself is intended to be presented and displayed in landscape format on the shelf, which is more evocative of a board game in terms of the profile it presents to the customer. The size of the box is such that it can comfortably contain a copy of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook and a copy of the Advanced Player’s Guide on top of one another with room to spare for character sheets and other accessories if you wanted to use it for that purpose when transporting your stuff. In addition, the width of the box is such that any of Paizo’s hardcovers will fit into that box with room all around the edges, too.
The illustration on the box calls back to the original 1977 Blue Box, albeit, with a significantly more attractive painting of the dragon upon its pile of treasure!
Contents of Box
Inside the box, you will find:
- 3 cardboard sheets of Monster/PC “Pawns” (with a bag of 20 plastic bases)
- 64 page Hero’s Handbook
- 96 page Game Master’s Guide
- 1 complete set of red polyhedral dice
- 1 double-sided flip-mat
- 4 Player Character sheet folios
- Additional blank character sheets
- Several one page flyers for advertising/Read Me First purposes
The cumulative weight of all of the above box contents makes the Beginner Box satisfyingly heavy. In terms of the breakdown of these components, if the contents were individually priced, you would expect to see something like:
- Flip-Mat - $12.99
- Dice – $6.99
- Monster Pawns + bases - $12.99-$14.99?
Do the arithmetic and you will quickly see that you are already at the retail price of the Beginner Box’s $34.99 MSRP price tag when pricing just those three included accessory products at retail. That is before you even get to the main offerings of the Beginner Box, which are the two books contained within it. So let’s be clear on this point: the Beginner Box presents an excellent bargain in terms of the perceived value of the components. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that no introductory box set for an RPG – at any time, for any system – has presented as useful a set of components together at such a reasonable price.
While that observation might change a little should you also choose to purchase a set of Wizkids’ Beginner Box Heroes pre-painted plastic miniatures, that is only a small downgrade in the overall perceived value. The large majority of customers will still be extremely happy for all of the game you get for a combined price of ~ $45-50 for both the Beginner Box and Beginner Box Heroes.
The Awesome Stuff – PC/Monster Pawns + bases
While the main value-in-use to a new gamer in learning how to play Pathfinder RPG is in the two books (and the character folios) which come with the Beginner Box, the value to every gamer, noob and veteran alike, lies in the PC/Monster Pawns. Without putting too fine a point on it: these “Pawns” ROCK and add greatly to the overall value of the product for every gamer. Moreover, I think the attractiveness, convenience, variety and sheer utility of this accessory product is so strong that I would offer them for sale as a stand-alone product in a heartbeat.
The idea of the pawns is simple and straightforward. Previous introductory boxed-games either included nothing to indicate the monsters, or provided only a very small selection of pre-painted minis. More recently, D&D Essentials and the ongoing D&D Encounters Organized Play program use cardboard counters – essentially pogs – to serve as tokens to indicate the foes.
The Beginner Box aims for a happier medium between pogs and pre-painted 3d minis. The 87 pawns included in the box come on three die cut sheets of cardstock (28 medium counters and 1 large counter per sheet) and are illustrated on both sides of each counter using attractive artwork from Paizo’s existing product lines. The image on both sides of the counter is the same illustration and there is no “front” or “back” to the counter as such. While this may be a little counter-intuitive, it makes perfect sense from a gameplay perspective. In Pathfinder, there is no such thing as “facing” in terms of how combat works, so there is no need for a shot of the butt side of a NPC or monster – and no need to pay an artist to create that additional new artwork, either.
Unlike pogs, the die-cut pawns do not lie flat on the table when used but are inserted first into a slotted plastic base so they stand up on the flip-mat during play. That little change makes all the difference in the world in terms of their attractiveness on the tabletop. You get a bag of 20 of these plastic bases in the Beginner Box, so there really is not any point in time when you do not have enough of these bases to field your PCs and all of the foes they will face at the same time in any given encounter. The only downside is that the bases are all medium in size and the three large figure counters are a little unstable in the bases when placed on a new flip-mat that tends not to lie perfectly flat on the tabletop. I would have preferred to receive a few large bases in the included bag of 20 bases.
The cardstock itself used for the pawns is satisfyingly thick and sturdy. Due to the thickness of the printed paper stock which is glued over both sides of the card, the overall thickness is a little more than what you might be familiar with if you own any D&D tiles or have any 3d terrain pieces for Terraclips.
If you are a new gamer, the Pawns accessory is immediately useful and attractive on the tabletop. If you are a veteran gamer and currently use tokens, paper minis or some other form of counters, the Pawns are better in every possible way than what you currently use. If you would like to use pre-painted plastic minis but are turned off by the random packaging or the cost -- the Pawns are the best available alternative in terms of price/performance, bar none. Lastly, if you already use a lot of plastic minis, my guess is that you are not likely to want to mix and match pawns and plastic minis on the tabletop unless you have no other possible choice and you will probably just keep buying plastic-minis or will use metal minis instead.
In any case, I think the sheer value-in-use that the Pawns provide is awesome. It is so awesome in fact, that this is not simply an “inferior good” substitute accessory for the Beginner Box. I put it to you that if Paizo printed and bundled 4 to 6 of these cardboard die-cut sheets every month or two and offered a subscription to them, they would sell tens, if not hundreds of thousands of these things before all is said and done.
Moreover, they could easily group and theme the monsters represented on these counter sheets to match up with their Adventure Path encounter requirements as well as tie bundles of counters into their Bestiary 1/2/3 product lines and other rulebooks for PC classes, alternative races, stand-alone modules, and so forth. Subscription sales leveraging cross-support of their separate product lines has been a hallmark of Paizo’s business success to date. Moreover, Paizo has never been shy about reusing and repurposing their large collection of fantasy artwork for use in parallel product lines.
Ideally, Paizo could offer bags of plastic bases in medium and other sizes to be sold cheaply as separate products. Those plastic bases could be sold online and in hobby stores, while un-punched, die-cut printed cardboard sheets (without any plastic bases) would qualify as “printed matter only” to take advantage of attractive postal rates for subscribers.
The reaction to the Pawns among established Pathfinder players on the Paizo Messageboards is nearly universal in enthusiastic praise concerning the accessory. These things are a genuine “hit” folks.
My guess is that we will be seeing a lot more of Pathfinder Pawns in the years to come.
The Great Stuff – Game Master’s Guide
Of the two books included in the Beginner Box, the larger and easily my favourite of the two is the Game Master’s Guide.
Put simply, the intention of the Game Master’s Guide is to introduce a complete and total noob to the subject of running a Pathfinder Role Playing Game session. This has been attempted before, many times within the D&D brand and within many other RPG games throughout the past decades with varying degrees of success.
The second paragraph of the introductory advice sets the tone throughout the book by advising all with passage that has sometimes not been emphasized early enough in previous attempts. It is advice that bears repeating:
“It is important to note that you are not competing with the players. You don’t win the game by killing all the characters. This is a game where everyone wins if everyone has a fun time. Your role is to challenge the players, not defeat them.” [Emphasis original]I expect we all know a GM or three that has never really learned that lesson, to this day.
The book itself is 96 pages, with the first 15 pages or so devoted to the introductory full-party adventure included in the Beginner Box. The inside front cover is a reproduction of the dungeon level with a map key that otherwise appears on the pre-drawn side of the flip-mat that is included with the Beginner Box. The adventure itself is presented in a room-by-room manner, with each encounter area illustrated in terms of the location of the monsters, other environmental dangers, and so forth. The monsters included in each are described, advice on tactics is provided, and the authors take the time to give advice to the GM in terms of what to tell players should an encounter frustrate them, too.
The balance of the Game Master’s Guide covers all of the basics of running a game. From preparing and running a game, to building an adventure, the impact of environment, magic items and a robust collection of monsters and NPCs together with a location profile and map of Sandpoint’s environs. The section on building an adventure was my favourite part of the Game Master’s Guide and the information is clear and extremely useful. Gygax never made this important information and advice as clear in the DMG – neither did Mentzer, or Moldvay in past Basic versions of D&D.
Indeed, I do not think any other Game Master’s book has performed the job of being an introductory book as effectively as this book achieves. Gygax, Mentzer and Moldvay? None of those great figures in the past of the game’s long history ever managed to teach a new GM the basic mechanics of running a game or in instructing a new reader in how he or she should mechanically design their own adventures as clearly. On the mechanics side of the ledger, Jason Bulmahn and Sean K. Reynolds take home the gold medal.
The one thing out of all of this which I felt was lacking in the Game Master’s Guide was story. While there is mention of story, the tale and the motivations and all the rest of the elaborate plotting that I tend to think is the heart and soul of Game Mastering and adventure design is almost entirely glossed over in this book. It is present, but it is not accorded all that important a status. I am not sure why this is so and it may be that the authors are just trying to keep a young reader from being overwhelmed. It may be that their thought was “teach the mechanics with a nod to a plot, and the story will sort itself out in time.” After all, most young players will have played many RPG flavoured video games where the story elements are well underscored.
Perhaps this choice was a correct one to make; I am not sure. Whatever the case, it certainly does seem that the role of the story and individual plot elements were deliberately de-emphasized in favour of having the book teach mechanics. This potential “plot hole” aside, the book otherwise achieves mostly all of what it sets out to do rather admirably.
In terms of the graphical presentation of the Game Master’s Guide, the moment you reach the first page of text, you will see that the art direction in the book is a sharp departure from that used in other Paizo products. Both books in the Beginner Box look very much like one of Brady’s Video Game Strategy Guides in terms of layout, fonts, colors, graphics, and overall art-direction. In part, this style of art direction belies the prior experience of Senior Paizo Art Director Sarah E. Robinson, who used to work for Nintendo as a designer for Nintendo Power Magazine and helped to write and design some of Nintendo’s own strategy guide line (Legend of Zelda, etc.).
However, the art direction in the Game Master’s Guide goes far deeper than merely differing aesthetics. The art style was selected to facilitate an easier connection with younger players as well as to use graphics, bulleted numbers, and bright color-coded text to help convey information more easily to the target age group. I confess that I do not like this art direction very much – but in fairness, I am not the end-user that Paizo is targeting with this book. Sarah Robinson designs and presents the award winning look for all the rest of Paizo’s product lines with my demographic in mind; in contrast, the Game Master’s Guide was deliberately crafted not to appeal to me, but to my 12-year-old son.
The artwork in the Game Master’s Guide leverages the past four years of Paizo’s thousands of pages of game material by reusing many of the best illustrations released over that time, Unless you are an avid collector (and reader!) of Paizo products, you are unlikely to be able to place most of the original sources where the illustrations first appeared.
Whatever the case, Paizo uses its treasure-trove of art to great effect. Despite the clear parallels that the Game Master’s Guide has with the layout of video game strategy guides, there has never been a strategy guide that was this lavishly illustrated.
The Good Stuff - Hero’s Handbook
In contrast to the mission of the Game Master’s Guide, the Hero’s Handbook is designed principally for another task – to assist new players in rolling up their first character. Consequently, this 64-page book tends to have less text and more graphics and color-coded bullet points than the Game Master’s Guide.
Again, I must confess that the overabundance of color-coded entries overwhelmed me. So much was popping off the page that at a certain point, nothing stood out from other aspects of the layout as “everything was popping.” Once more, I am not the target market that this book is aimed at – and if you are reading this review here on ENWorld, it is highly unlikely that this book was made for you to use, either.
The Hero’s Handbook begins with a true blast from the past, a pick-a-path to your own adventure article. Like a Lone-Wolf adventure from days gone past, the book presents a simple adventure with some easy d20 attack roll mechanics. For the most part, this adventure acts as a soporific for an excited kid who gets this new game and faces the same issue every other gamer since 1974 has faced: there is nobody around to play it with. So here at least, a simple solo adventure is provided to tide the new owner over.
The balance of the first half of the book is largely pre-occupied with presenting the means to roll up and outfit a new character from one of the base four classes presented in the book: the iconic Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. (A free online player’s supplement also adds the Barbarian to this mix of classes for player characters.)
The character folios that are provided in the box are four page pre-generated character sheets that use the centre spread of the opened folio to present the character data, with the balance of the left and right sides of the page explaining what the information all means. This is an extremely difficult task to do and the folio pre-generated characters rise to the occasion and for the most part, work very well.
Similarly, the directions for character generation in the Hero’s Handbook utilize the same approach, this time using numbers and color codes in the directions of where to write down data on the coded blank character sheets that come with the Beginner Box. For the most part, this also works well and is easy to follow.
The second half of the Hero’s Handbook is devoted to equipment, some loose examples of adventuring play and then the meat of the second half is pre-occupied with explaining how combat in Pathfinder works. If there is a problem in the entire Beginner Box, you will find it here. It is not that the authors do a poor job of explaining Pathfinder combat – they do their level best. Yet as you read the descriptions and break downs of actions and attacks and flanking and all the stuff we take for granted in 3.xx /Pathfinder combat – there is no soft-pedalling the fact that this stuff is complicated. With assistance, I know an 8-10 year old can learn and grasp this at the table – my own son did. But to learn unassisted just from reading? I am not so sure that any book is up to that task when aimed at that age level. Some of this stuff is hard to follow at that age – or at age 14, too.
Happily, Paizo did make the choice to strip out a few of the more complicated rules from the Beginner Box. Attacks of Opportunity and Combat Maneuvers are not presented in the Beginner Box version of the rules. Similarly, the beginning spells included in the box are fewer in number – and less fulsome in their description – than the Core rules provides.
Nevertheless, the rules for character generation are robust and complete and will carry the player through to fifth level. At that time, it is hoped that everyone concerned, players and GM both, will move on to Pathfinder RPG. In that regard, the Beginner Box is only a little bit basic and mostly serves as an introduction to the full game.
First level through to the beginning of fifth level is a whole lot of gaming. In terms of the rule complexity, I do not fear that Paizo left out too much, if anything, I fear that they should have pared things down a little more. For all that, I have no idea what else, if anything, could have been conveniently pared down from the Pathfinder rule set. It may be that the answer was “not very much” and so Jason Bulmahn made the call to leave the design as complete as it is. Past a certain point, cutting more out of a system as complex and interdependent as Pathfinder might have left a much too flimsy house of cards struggling to stand.
The Very Useful – Flip-Mat and a Set of Red Polyhedral Dice
I must be candid here and admit my weakness for flip-mats. I have several Battlemats, two Megamats, and even a Mondomat at home. Chessex has earned a lot of my money in the past and I continue to enjoy their products. Outside of the home, however, I do not use Chessex mats anymore. The ability to fold up a flip-mat is just too convenient.
Moreover, I love pre-printed flip-mats and I have been looking to track down the only three mats I am missing for quite a while now (Forest Path, City Square or Tavern, btw). Point being, I have a great weakness for this product line that borders on an obsession – so I am not as objective as I should be about them.
The pre-printed side of the flip-mat contains a small dungeon complex with a dozen areas (ten are detailed in the accompanying adventure), and the result is that the map should present an engaging visual feast to new players. I know that whenever I pull out one of my flip-mats that my Pathfinder Society players have never seen before, they always perk right up and area engaged by the pre-printed map. Therefore, I think this was an excellent choice for Paizo to make.
The reverse side of the flip-mat is a blank 1” grid that a GM can use to draw out their own encounters upon and the Game Master’s Guide presents advice on how to do this and create a map to ensure the map always fits on the flip-mat. The background selected for the blank side of the flip-map is a “sandy” yellow color, which was an interesting choice. I generally use the light grey/white as my preferred blank-grid background color instead of the sand texture. Whatever the case, the inclusion of a flip-mat elevates the reusability of the Beginner Box to as high a level as most gamers at ENWorld typically have at their disposal. Big Thumbs up on this choice to include this accessory.
The Dice Set
The red polyhedral dice set is nothing remarkable, which when it comes to discussing dice in a Beginner Box, is a Very Good Thing. When I say “unremarkable,” I mean to say that the set is actually a complete dice set with one each of a d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20 and another d10 for use as a d100. I also mean that the plastic for use in the dice is standard, reliable and what you would expect a die to be made out of – so the d20 will not turn into a rounded gumball after use for a year or two. I also mean to say that the dice are “unremarkable” so that a crayon is not included in the box as the dice are all pre-inked, too.
Now if they had included a dry erase marker in the box, too, for use with the Flip-mat that might have been very cool. However, really, for $34.99, the Beginner Box is crammed with stuff as it stands.
But Wait – There’s MORE!
As the information in the Beginner Box reminds the owner, there is a lot more information and even adventures free online, too. Paizo has opened up a completely new section on their website dedicated to the Beginner Box, with a downloadable player’s kit with a new class (the Barbarian) and a new adventure with new monsters for GMs and other material as well. The extra free .pdf material easily puts the completeness of the Beginner Box experience at an unprecedented level of detail and value. Big Thumbs up here.
The Beginner Box is a bit of an oddball product. The people who are perhaps the largest demographic who are the intended audience to buy the product are the very people who will be reading this review (that means you). However, we are not the intended end-user of this product. That is intended to be somebody else entirely: a son/daughter, nephew/niece, or even the kid across the street or the one who mows your lawn or shovels your driveway (if you live in places where grass grows and snow falls).
This product is available principally in hobby stores or in bookstores and for the most part, it will not appear as a mass-market product in any of the usual stores where a kid is likely to see it. Most importantly, it won’t be on the shelf at your local Wal-Mart, Target or Toys R’ Us. It will not even be on the shelf at the local pharmacy or 7-11 (though you might well end up seeing some copies at Fry’s Electronics of all places). The point is, the kind of place where a kid is likely to see this and wonder about it, is a store he is in because he already knows about some aspect of hobby gaming, even if that means it Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh at the local FLGS.
Accordingly, for the most part, absent exposure to the Beginner Box at a Barnes and Noble or other bookstore, the kind of person who is most likely to encounter the Beginner Box is a gamer. We are the primary customer for this product. We are supposed to buy it and, for the most part, are intended to give it to those we know who we think would benefit the most from it. We are the intended customer, but we are not the intended end-user.
The end-user is, ideally, a kid, most likely a boy aged 10-15 yrs old. He is the one who will be opening this up under a tree at Xmas time. My guess is that the gift-giver hopes that the Beginner Box will help that kid discover gaming in a way that we remember that many of us did as kids as we fondly look back to our experience with the Blue Box or Red Box in the late 70s and early 80s.
The truth is that we never had it as good as this when we were kids. We never got a box with a game that was as good, or as richly illustrated or as well written, and we sure as hell never got a box with components that were even remotely as plentiful, solid, and useful as the Beginner Box has in it. While I might quibble about some of Paizo’s choices in the included Adventure, the overall quality of the Beginner Box is exceptionally high.
That’s all to the good, because the truth is, it has to be.
Back in the days of the Blue Box and the Red Box, we only had Pong and the Atari 2600 for competition. Today’s kid has Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, Wow, Assassin’s Creed, Star Wars: The Old Republic and a bazillion other video game and PC game titles to distract him or her. No matter what way you slice it, RPGs are a tough sell these days. The competition for one’s imagination is so much more fully realized now than it was back-in-the-day.
Ultimately, those matters are beyond the control of any RPG publisher to counter. All they can do is present a product as fully and complete as possible and hope that the keystone upon which all RPGs depend – a love of creating and playing and imagining, can overcome the competition.
I am not sure that they can; however, I am sure that the Beginner Box is the most complete attempt I have ever seen to provide a new player with all the enticement that can be reasonably put together in one box in order to provide a complete and compelling RPG experience.
For the rest? Well, let us be honest. If you want the Beginner Box to succeed? Make sure you give your kid an even greater gift and play it with him or her -- more than just once, too.
All kidding aside, thirty years from now, your kid will reflect back and remember that time they spent gaming with you more fondly than they recall any old flip-mat, cardboard Pawns – or any damn video game, either – however cool any of them might be.
Highly Recommended, for Ages 13+ (on box), for Ages 10-16 (reviewer’s slant)
Edit: I have added a better pic of the pawns in action as found at this blogsite.