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Pathfinder Beginner Box Review

Hello buckaroos! We return once again from the feet of the golem with a new PAIZO PRODUCT REVIEW! Today we’re looking at the new Pathfinder Beginner Box, Paizo’s latest in a hugely successful line of products for newcomers to our hobby. Spoiler alert: they’ve got another success on their hands. Let’s get into it!

PZO2106 PF2 Beginner Box 1200x675.jpg

First Impressions​

We start off this box review with an initial impression, and the initial impression is good! Bright, colorful, cheerful lettering, and a good heft—all things that say “good RPG thing must buy” to my primal dicegoblin brain. Upon first opening, we see a bag of dice, a bag of token bases, and a handful of small inserts culminating in a page that says READ THIS FIRST.

Of course I do not READ THAT FIRST! I huck the token bases to the side and take a gander at the dice. One each of d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20, each in strong, single colors with clear lettering. I’m of mixed mind on these dice. On one hand, I appreciate a grab-bag approach to starter dice: my first starter set in a beginner box had mixed colors, and non-uniform dice to me makes them easier to share. That said, the bright primary colors evoke a handful of crayons, and while beginner boxes are in part meant to accommodate a younger audience and get them excited, I think the color-scheme may be skewing a bit young. The Crayola colors are easily forgiven as soon as you dig past the READ THIS FIRST page and you see the character sheets with delightful reference images for each of the dice—but we’ll get to the character sheets in a bit. I only have a few minor issues left with the dice. This is a bit snobbish, but I consider any dice set that doesn’t have two d10 and four d6 to be incomplete. Also, I’d prefer a resealable dice bag over the disposable one: my first set of dice from my beginner box is down to just five dice from the original ten because they spent their lives rattling around loose in their box.

Now, the inserts! A little postcard lets you know that there’s a custom Syrinscape playlist for the adventure contained within. Neat! The other postcards are player reference cards, which are about the best attempt at getting new players over the fairly steep Pathfinder learning curve I’ve seen yet. That said, there is a bit of a shock when you turn them over and are greeted with a wall of text. Finally, the READ THIS FIRST page is short, sweet, and to the point, laying out how to approach the Box as a solo player or with a group of players.

Character Sheets​

Below the READ THIS FIRST we have the character sheets, and here’s where the Box starts to show its hand a bit. You’re clearly meant to use this with a group of players, as it’s those pregenerated character folios which appear before the Hero’s Handbook which contains the solo adventure. That said, I have quite a lot of good things to say about these character sheets. Cover page features a name, a class, a huge splash art of the character’s portrait, and a quick description to help potential newcomers choose their playstyle.

Like the reference cards, the meat and potatoes of the character sheets can seem like an overwhelming barrage of information, but thankfully a solid half of that text is dedicated to explaining and leading a new player through the rather complicated process of understanding a Pathfinder character sheet. Truly excellent layout design is on display here—little coordinating lettered yellow circles lead the reader easily from explanation to relevant box, and the most-used sections of the sheet (AC, hit points, so on) are boxed out in red to stand out from the regular black. As I said before, there’s a handsome little sidebar displaying each of the dice available and their abbreviations—excellent! Also, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this on a Pathfinder character sheet before, but these now have a space for personal pronouns! Finally, the layout artist gets a cheeky point from me for putting a few characters of character history on the back page of the folio—literal backstory.

As an aside: Wayne Reynolds' art maintains his high level of technical excellence, but there’s something repetitive about the characters' poses. This all stands in contrast to the cover art for the Hero’s Handbook, done by Ekaterina Burmak. The character posing here helps focus the eye on defining aspects of each character: Kyra’s pose pulls back and up into her holy symbol, shining forth with protecting energy against the lightning blast of the dragon. Valeros pushes forward into his shield, taking the brunt of the blast, emphasizing his role on the front line and the use of his shield in his playstyle. And then, off to the side, we see Merisiel darting in, lines almost blurred with speed, unseen by the dragon, dagger darting forward to the exposed neck. Sure, Wayne’s art is technically more accurate to the adventure—the dragon is green, and on top of one of the massive mushrooms in its cavern—but I definitely like Ekaterina’s art more.

The Hero's Handbook​

The Hero's Handbook kicks off with a solo adventure, a delightful little romp through a quick little cavern with a few nasties and quite a bit of treasure. My advice for those taking their own crack at it? Fortune favors the bold. The rest of the Hero’s Handbook concerns itself with expertly navigating a new player through the process of making a new character, complete with the colorful lettered circles that connect to spaces on the provided empty character sheets. Also, the Hero’s Handbook FINALLY does away with the difference between ability scores and ability modifiers—thank goodness.

The Game Master's Guide​

Like the Hero’s Handbook, the Game Master’s Guide kicks off with an adventure. As a GM and as an adventure designer, I do appreciate the way the adventure designers generally nail one-page sections for each room or encounter. Like with the solo adventure, there’s excellent escalation of challenges: first simple combat, then a combat with some saving throws, then skill checks, puzzles, persistent damage, and some undead to let the cleric shine in an offensive moment. Other nice spots of design include magical boon rewards and defending monsters getting some home turf advantages. Also, it must be said: this features a dragon in a dungeon. Points again!

My only real issues with the adventure was the tired artifact of XP—if we’re going to be doing away with ability scores and modifiers, just take the leap to milestone XP, especially if the Game Master’s Guide later insists all players advance equally anyway—and the climactic encounters seem a little lackluster. Perhaps it’s just a glut of excellent encounter design I’ve seen from other places lately, but I tend to expect a little more action from the environment. That said, this is an introductory adventure, and I wouldn’t want to throw a new GM too far into the deep end.

The rest of the Game Master’s Guide is simply excellent material for a new GM learning the ropes, and indeed is a fantastic refresher for experienced GMs wanting a straightforward and concise presentation of the fundamentals of running tabletop games in general and Pathfinder 2E in specific. My only issue with this section is that there's more ogre art in line with their supposed foul and flabby nature. I can tell this was a deliberate choice because much of the rest of the monster art, specifically that of the orcs, is lifted directly from the Bestiary. I will keep my ogres beautiful and beefy, thank you very much.

The Rest​

What’s left? Well, we have the fold-out maps, which are excellent and which absolutely require a full table to use properly. There are tokens for every monster that appears in the Game Master’s Guide, and even tokens for every ancestry/gender/class combination possible with the limited options available in the Hero’s Handbook. Also, some tokens with action and reaction symbols on them for use with the relevant spaces on the included character sheets.

In summary, the Pathfinder Beginner Box is an excellent introduction to the game for new solo players and new groups, and an excellent reintroduction for veterans looking for a refresh on the game’s core identity. Well worth the investment and guaranteed to be a hit at your table.
 
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Ben Reece

Ben Reece

kenada

Legend
Supporter
Assuming you're talking about gish builds, it simply cannot be done without serious design work (that neither WotC nor Paizo are willing to do).
I think that’s a reasonable assumption given the context, but there are a couple of martial options for casting classes (warpriest cleric, warrior muse bard, battle oracle). The warpriest in particular seems off because it not only has a faster weapon proficiency progression than the cloistered cleric, but it has a slower casting proficiency progression, which tops out at master (not legendary) casting proficiency. You also can’t start with an 18 Strength because of the way the ABC character creation system works.

There is precedent for varying key ability scores (rogue rackets), so giving warpriests Strength as their key ability score strikes me as a reasonable change, especially since eldritch trickster gives rogues their casting stat as their key ability score (so why not let a martial cleric get Strength as theirs?). I’d also consider giving warpriests master weapon proficiency at 15th level. You’re still not as good as true martials, but you shouldn’t have to shift your balance of fighting/casting to casting as you gain levels.
 
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Putting aside that I loved 4e, I kinda think that its sort of silly to suggest its failure was down to balancing Martials and Magic. People had a diverse set of complaints for that game and I doubt "Billy's fighter isn't subservient to my Wizard, how dare they!" Was anything resembling a consensus.

But I'm not sure the assertion that paizo being unwilling to put the design work in really holds up very well. We got the playtest Magus just recently and while it was controversial they highlighted every intention to fix it according to the expectations presented by playtest feedback.

I think full caster / full martial isn't really a worthwhile goal, balance IS important to a game like this, and we've seen its absence cause lots of maladaptions in the player base. Meanwhile I think most reasonable players would be comfortable with a well designed Magus or Swordmage type that blends the two well.

I'm a big gish person, and what I really want is anime fighting magic techniques. "Fighter/Wizard in a can" not only steps on toes, its boring when what I really want is to teleport around, getting hits in while lightning dances down my blade, and bringing my blade down for an explosive finisher.

From a fantasy perspective it beats "I throw magic AND swing my sword good"
 

I think that’s a reasonable assumption given the context, but there are a couple of martial options for casting classes (warpriest cleric, warrior muse bard, battle oracle). The warpriest in particular seems off because it not only has a faster weapon proficiency progression than the cloistered cleric, but it has a slower casting proficiency progression, which tops out at master (not legendary) casting proficiency. You also can’t start with an 18 Strength because of the way the ABC character creation system works.

There is precedent for varying key ability scores (rogue rackets), so giving warpriests Strength as their key ability score strikes me as a reasonable change, especially since eldritch trickster gives rogues their casting stat as their key ability score (so why not let a martial cleric get Strength as theirs?). I’d also consider giving warpriests master weapon proficiency at 15th level. You’re still not as good as true martials, but you shouldn’t have to shift your balance of fighting/casting to casting as you gain levels.
I definetly think giving Warpriests the option to shift their key stat is a good move, i don't think the master prof is necessary though i am kind of wondering if their reduced casting prof is really necessary or could just be removed from the game text. Atm, its less of a balance festure, snd more just defines their meta away from offensive magic.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Anyway, my point is that Paizo went overboard with the niche protection. No, Fighters don't need Wizards to actively lag behind in attack bonus to feel safe in their niche. This lag has only one result: making spell attacks (spells that target AC instead of saves) useless.

Actually the implementation of the niche protection of the Fighter specifically sucks. The Fighter gets +2 compared to other weapon users, and that's fine. But it only gets that to one specific type of weapon! This only results in the Fighter not being able to use looted weaponry. It's much better for a Fighter to strip the runes off of the axe she just found, and apply them to her sword or polearm or whatever.

For some reason weapon flexibility was considered such a huge advantage the Fighter doesn't get it until 19th level!

Full flexibility is something you could give the Fighter at level 1 and it would not unbalance a single thing!
 

MoonSong

Rules-lawyering drama queen but not a munchkin
I find it funny that all I mentioned was a sorceress that used a polearm instead of cantrips to fight. And then everybody jumped into "wants to be OP and outfight the fighter!". And the allure of the gish for me isn't the great power, but rather that I don't like to fight using cantrips, it comes too close to just shooting lasers for my liking. It is an aesthetic choice.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
I'm a big gish person, and what I really want is anime fighting magic techniques. "Fighter/Wizard in a can" not only steps on toes, its boring when what I really want is to teleport around, getting hits in while lightning dances down my blade, and bringing my blade down for an explosive finisher.
That's what I meant by my first sentence: " it simply cannot be done without serious design work (that neither WotC nor Paizo are willing to do)."

It can be done, but the devs need to come up with a new set of cool powers that neither just do with magic what the battlemaster* does without, nor steps on the wizard's (or bard's, or cleric's) toes.

In short, give up the idea of access to the arcane (occult etc) spell list. Instead give out a curated list of powers. Something akin to a monk* perhaps.

*) I'm thinking of the 5E impleentations here
 

CapnZapp

Legend
I think that’s a reasonable assumption given the context, but there are a couple of martial options for casting classes (warpriest cleric, warrior muse bard, battle oracle). The warpriest in particular seems off because it not only has a faster weapon proficiency progression than the cloistered cleric, but it has a slower casting proficiency progression, which tops out at master (not legendary) casting proficiency. You also can’t start with an 18 Strength because of the way the ABC character creation system works.
Yes, we quickly discarded the warpriest.

First, the 3E Bard should have taught Paizo that a "balanced" gish isn't 50%/50% or even 75%/75%. It feels balanced when the sum of your two sides is more like 180% than 100%. After all you can't do both at the same time.

Second, the idea of a Warpriest doesn't work together with the idea of a "full Cleric". The full Divine spell list means you will quickly realize casting spells is better than making attacks. All your physical offense is wasted, while any physical defense quickly becomes OP (why play a frail cleric if you can play a strong cleric and still cast the same spells?) And so we're back to the design work needed to make gishes work...

At the very least, they could have tried the 3E Sorcerer path. Being a full level behind in spellcasting (Fireballs at level 6, not 5) was incredibly impopular but actually worked to balance the class. Just being at -2 DC does not work. Either it's just unfun or it can be minmaxed away (by building a character that doesn't cast offensive magic).

A Warpriest that mostly bashes heads in is fine, but it needs a different set of magic abilities than a full Cleric. (In other words, it's a Paladin/Champion...!)
 

Retreater

Legend
I played the first half of the Beginner Box adventure today. I had the pre-generated fighter and there were three other characters (cleric, wizard, and rogue). We did not have optimal tactics (the wizard mostly relied on his crossbow instead of attack cantrips, the rogue rarely performed sneak attacks). We had a couple of challenging battles, but nothing that got close to a TPK. (My fighter went unconscious one time due to an unlikely critical hit and two other hits on him in the same turn, but I was back up and fighting in time for my next action.)
Since I was a player and not the GM, I can't speak to if it was scaled down or anything, but overall it felt fair.
 



CapnZapp

Legend
I have found DMing PF2 (not specifically the BB though) very fun, since monsters are actually fearsome - you don't need to bend over backwards to make the players respect their foes (as you do in 5E), and because it's easy to set up exciting combats as a DM GM.

It's everything else besides the actual combat that's a huge drag and after playing Extinction Curse (we're at L19) three players have said they're fed up with all the little inconsistent rules and prefer 5E (one to the extent he's bowing out entirely from further PF2 play). Only one player definitely prefers PF2 (and that's the player who really would love to play PF1).

It's a shame Paizo ended up with a game that is so relentlessly hard to love. It certainly comes as no surprise to me it's hard to lure 5E players to PF2 - this game is brutally hardcore in its demands on players attention to detail and overall mental power while playing.
 


Windjammer

Adventurer
It's a shame Paizo ended up with a game that is so relentlessly hard to love. It certainly comes as no surprise to me it's hard to lure 5E players to PF2 - this game is brutally hardcore in its demands on players attention to detail and overall mental power while playing.
This is a tough call. I agree that demand on attention span and concentration levels in multi-hour sessions can be really draining and be offputting to players, esp. if you have a demanding day job and just want some easy, relaxing release and entertainment.

I honestly don't know what the solution is. I really, really disliked 4e after a couple of years because it ran on rails. The situational choices within a game session were so relatively straight forward that I could play it with my brain half or mostly switched off. I'd spend hours each week before a game session optimizing my build and power choices, but once that was done, the character in play was just trivial. I love that PF 2 brings back situational decision making, and I'd hate to see it trivialized or cut back on to the extent that too much modern D&D has (e.g. high level 3e play where tension at the table was pretty much deflated within minutes of rolling initiative - ok, so our side goes first, which means the BBEG is gonna go down). As I said, a hard thing to balance.
 

willrali

Explorer
It's a shame Paizo ended up with a game that is so relentlessly hard to love. It certainly comes as no surprise to me it's hard to lure 5E players to PF2 - this game is brutally hardcore in its demands on players attention to detail and overall mental power while playing.

Is there any hard data on this? I’ve had no trouble recruiting five ex 5e players to PF2, and they’ve never looked back. Again, I know people seem to love that game, but it’s had everything that made D&D interesting boiled off it, leaving us with bland blancmange.

I find it funny that all I mentioned was a sorceress that used a polearm instead of cantrips to fight. And then everybody jumped into "wants to be OP and outfight the fighter!". And the allure of the gish for me isn't the great power, but rather that I don't like to fight using cantrips, it comes too close to just shooting lasers for my liking. It is an aesthetic choice.

In that case did you try the fighter archetype? There’s even a canonical rules variant where you get it free.
 

transmission89

Adventurer
I have found DMing PF2 (not specifically the BB though) very fun, since monsters are actually fearsome - you don't need to bend over backwards to make the players respect their foes (as you do in 5E), and because it's easy to set up exciting combats as a DM GM.

It's everything else besides the actual combat that's a huge drag and after playing Extinction Curse (we're at L19) three players have said they're fed up with all the little inconsistent rules and prefer 5E (one to the extent he's bowing out entirely from further PF2 play). Only one player definitely prefers PF2 (and that's the player who really would love to play PF1).

It's a shame Paizo ended up with a game that is so relentlessly hard to love. It certainly comes as no surprise to me it's hard to lure 5E players to PF2 - this game is brutally hardcore in its demands on players attention to detail and overall mental power while playing.
Some of the contents of this post contain misleading information. Fact check:
1) many people in fact do love pathfinder 2. Some people do not. Like always, people like different things.
2) Many people throughout the years have struggled to move people away from the current edition of d&d to try a different game. This is a well known inertia and often discussed in community postings. There is no evidence to suggest that this is something peculiar to pf2 as a consequence of its design choices.
3) Groups can and do play PF2 in a casual chips and dips way. Pf2, like most ttrpgs can be approached with a number of different play styles that vary from table to table.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
This is a tough call. I agree that demand on attention span and concentration levels in multi-hour sessions can be really draining and be offputting to players, esp. if you have a demanding day job and just want some easy, relaxing release and entertainment.
Thank you.

Perhaps I should clarify my point. PF1 was arguably just as cluttery and filled to the brim with rules, and that game did just fine.

So my point isn't that Advanced Squad Leader games are inherently evil or some such.

My point is that Paizo badly misread the market by completely failing to see where the wind was blowing despite having access to the mega success of 5E for several years. Correct me if I'm wrong but I would say the success of 5E and its mechanical solutions must have been evident a full year before PF2's ruleset even bagin taking on their final shape.

PF2 comes across as a game that's developed in a bubble where 5E simply does not exist. If you compare the game against PF1 and 4E it is unquestionably a success, no matter how you look at it.

But the game wasn't released in a post 4E world. It was released in a post 5E world.

And that makes its grossly overengineered rules feel instantly antiquated, since by the standard of 2015 they're actively user hostile.

I honestly don't know what the solution is.
The solution is clearly to release a version of Pathfinder 2 that has been ruthlessly de-cluttered and given a badly needed rules do-over. There must be a secret fan of 4E working at Paizo, and that person needs to be let go. Paizo needs to admit that while, yes, PF2 was written with the explicit intention to clean out the morass of pesky little rules exceptions that plagued PF1, the exact same situation persists in PF2, with loads and loads of feats and class abilities that work the same, except they have very slightly different wordings. Then they need to own up to the fact the game's individual parts don't work well together. To pick just one example - why have so elaborate and detailed rules for Treat Wounds, when the encounter system so clearly has ditched the resource management style of 3E/PF1? (Why force players to make all those little decisions and die rolls when you in the end still need to sit tight until you're fully healed??)

The Core Rulebook is 642 pages. I would submit it would be a task of Trivial difficulty to shave off 50 pages. Just drop the most obscure and byzantine spells and feats. And it would be a Moderate challenge to shave off 100 (dropping subsystems whose main effect is to make gamers' eyes glaze over). A system so complicated gamers who have played for well over a year still believe it does things it does not do (craft items) should appear as a variant in a GMG-type product, not be included in the core rulebook. (It's the Kickstarter disease).

I am firmly convinced a CRB of 500 pages or so would be strictly better, and straight up attract more customers.

And don't get me started on how Paizo just blithely kept doing a PF1 era rollout of supplements, again learning nothing from 5E. The game has been out for 18 months or so and the already-large amount of feats has already been doubled (tripled?). No mountain of feats can't conceal the fact that yes, you theoretically have many many MANY options, but the amount of real power to customize your character is severely curtailed.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Some of the contents of this post contain misleading information. Fact check:
1) many people in fact do love pathfinder 2. Some people do not. Like always, people like different things.
What's misleading is relativism.

What I'm asking is: might there be many more people loving PF2?

I don't find the fact "many" people loves PF2 a compelling reason to settle for the current game, when I clearly see how much better it could have been. In fact, I would even think there might be a chance you would have loved the game more if it had been changed in ways discussed above.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
The Core Rulebook is 642 pages. I would submit it would be a task of Trivial difficulty to shave off 50 pages. Just drop the most obscure and byzantine spells and feats. And it would be a Moderate challenge to shave off 100 (dropping subsystems whose main effect is to make gamers' eyes glaze over). A system so complicated gamers who have played for well over a year still believe it does things it does not do (craft items) should appear as a variant in a GMG-type product, not be included in the core rulebook. (It's the Kickstarter disease).
One could probably meet that page count reduction just by rewriting the CRB in the style of the Beginner Box. It’s needlessly verbose. The Beginner Box should have just been a reprint of the core rules with a subset of its options instead of a beginner-focused rewrite. That the BB needed its own take on the rules means the CRB needed additional editing passes until the it could be that.
 

transmission89

Adventurer
What's misleading is relativism.

What I'm asking is: might there be many more people loving PF2?

I don't find the fact "many" people loves PF2 a compelling reason to settle for the current game, when I clearly see how much better it could have been. In fact, I would even think there might be a chance you would have loved the game more if it had been changed in ways discussed above.
Shrug.

My issue isn’t with the the fact you dislike the game. I get that it’s not for everyone.
My issue is with your arguing the reasons why, using your opinion that because it doesn’t use 5e as a base marks it as a failure, making other points as factual despite being again, opinion based (see the evoking 4e) no matter what else and taking that as factual from there.

Which is a shame, because when you critique the game on its own merits, you are very articulate. I agree the CRB is overly verbose and could have done with another editing pass. I also agree there are other little niggles that could’ve been improved upon.

I disagree with your assertion that it presents a dated design principle and fails in a post 5e world, that the feat options are bloated or that their release schedule is an artefact of 3e book bloat. I don’t think a hard back a quarter in both lines is excessive (of course, ymmv but I’m not making claims otherwise).

Again, I emphasise, critique it on its own points (and that can even be in contrast to 5e) but it’s churlish to Mark it as a failure because it doesn’t meet your expected ideal of a 5e++. This is the game they made, the game they wanted to make and it’s doing well (well being a relativism because nothing is going to compare with the freight train of 5e, as usual d&d is a market aberration).
 

Windjammer

Adventurer
I emphasise, critique [PF2] on its own points (and that can even be in contrast to 5e) but it’s churlish to Mark it as a failure because it doesn’t meet your expected ideal of a 5e++. This is the game they made, the game they wanted to make and it’s doing well (well being a relativism because nothing is going to compare with the freight train of 5e, as usual d&d is a market aberration).
This seems both fair and unfair. One implied question CaptnZapp is replying to is: how could PF2 perform better than its current single digit marketshare? And one obvious answer is that, to outperform 5e or compete with it, you have to identify what it does well and then do it better. Ditto for what 5e does badly and then do a better job in your own design.

5e has so many strengths and weaknesses that the opportunities seem rife for those with time and talent (personally have neither).

And coming from that angle, CaptnZapp‘s point seems to be that PF2 doesn’t appear premised on a solid understanding of those strengths in 5e. It’s ok to not copy 5e and for a new game to still be a success—nobody is arguing otherwise; but it’s hard to look at PF2 and describe much of what’s going on there as building on 5e as a learning experience.

Some of PF2 obviously is a response to 5e’s broken promises though. The 5e playtest promised three pillars of play, because people got tired of the hack and slash in 4e (esp. early modules). Sound familiar, right? And it’s a bigger theme at implementation level in PF2 than 5e, I’d argue, and part of the game‘s appeal.

The 5e playtest also promised other things it failed to ever implement—like modularity in design complexity. A clear recognition that people would find that appealing. Now how does PF2 build on that? Arguably not at all. Wouldn’t it have been better to roll out the product with a base game ruleset, and then push half the CRB to the GMG, and half the published GMG to Unearthed Arcana? It’s not just bloated writing, it’s the distribution of content that seems to be dictated by late 1990s/2000s legacy issues rather than sober recognition of the market in 2019 and beyond.

So I think using 5e as a benchmark of sorts to establish a success metric is Justified; even if we don’t want to argue that you have to be a 5e retroclone or similar to be successful in a post-5e world.
 
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