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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

This seems both fair and unfair. One implied question Zapp 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.

Zapp‘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—nobody is arguing that—but it’s hard to look at PF2 and describe what’s going on there as building on 5e as a learning experience.

Some of it obviously is 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.
5e playtest also promised modularity kn Design complexity. A clear recognition that people would find that appealing. Now how does PF2 build on that? 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.
This is my point though. Throughout a lot of their posts (not just on this thread) it is the consistent begging the question around a lot of pathfinder 2, even when the original question is unrelated (such as this thread who’s original focus was on the beginner box as a product and not the place to continue criticising the main system, which has led this long meander where we are now).

Your premise on which you build upon is also flawed here as, like zapp (though without the arrogant pronouncement as fact) you are making the argument on assumptions : “To out perform 5e or compete with it, you have to identify what is does well and then do it better?”

To my mind, no to both. This assumes that a) Paizo were specifically aiming to compete with 5e and b) the way to do that is by making 5e++.

a) Yes they are competing in the sense that all ttrpgs compete for market share, but does WFRP, COC, SWRPG, OSE etc set out to “compete with 5e?” I would contend not.

b) Is making the same product as your main rival, but better, the best way to gain market share and “win”? With various products, many companies have tried this and failed, just being better often isn’t enough to gain Customers already invested in an ecosystem. Not saying it can’t be done, but it’s not always a sure bet.

Your personal preference of organisation by suggesting of moving the content around as being the way to shake up the “legacy” issues is just that, a personal preference. I certainly wouldn’t agree to that were Paizo to do a survey about book organisation!

Your post does provoke a lot of thought and I think highlights an issue that Paizo does have to overcome, those who do actually just see it as 5e++ rather than its own thing and judge it as a success or failure based on that. A possible solution exists in the way it can differentiate itself
 

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Windjammer

Adventurer
Your post does provoke a lot of thought and I think highlights an issue that Paizo does have to overcome, those who do actually just see it as 5e++ rather than its own thing and judge it as a success or failure based on that. A possible solution exists in the way it can differentiate itself
Thanks, solid points throughout. One clarification: I actually really, really dislike the blandness of 5e so PF2 doesn't need to convince me to be a "better" 5e. That's why I referenced the promise of 5e rather than the game's eventual (rather disappointing) execution. I do think that 5e remains a benchmark of success for broad appeal though, and you and I agree that copying 5e is not necessary to success. A game that, in my exact verbiage, "learns from the lessons of 5E" could look nothing like 5e - and I strongly suspect it would. So I'm actually as far from the "5e ++" camp (to use your handy term) as you can imagine. I think nothing worthwhile came out of Wizards of the Coast since 4.0.

Secondly, the organization of content issue has nothing to do with 5e. This was years ago when I played some of FFG's 40k games. All of which are like 300 to 400 page hardcovers. Ended up printing the player-relevant portions and had it soft bound in a 100 page binder. It was the envy of our game table. Loved it.

There's a reason why, outside PF and FFG's RPG cames, most gamelines put the GM material in a separate book. It's just more convenient from a portability perspective and doesn't intimidate the fledgling player as much.

So yeah, all I'd be asking for from PF2 (where I own all the books in specialty edition, except Bestiary 2), is a convenient player's guide featuring cleaned-up prose and de-cluttered from GM content. The Beginner's Book player book is already half way there.
 

Thanks, solid points throughout. One clarification: I actually really, really dislike the blandness of 5e so PF2 doesn't need to convince me along a 5e point. That's why I referenced the promise of 5e rather than the game's eventual (rather disappointing) execution. I do think that 5e remains a benchmark of success for broad appeal though, and you and I agree that copying 5e is not necessary to success.

Secondly, the organization issue has nothing to do with 5e. This was years ago when I played some of FFG's 40k games. All of which are like 300 to 400 page hardcovers. Ended up printing the player-relevant portions and had it soft bound in a 100 page binder. It was the envy of our game table. Loved it.

There's a reason why, outside PF and FFG's RPG cames, most gamelines put the GM material in a separate book. It's just more convenient from a portability perspective and doesn't intimidate the fledgling player as much.

So yeah, all I'd be asking for from PF2 (where I own all the books in specialty edition, except Bestiary 2), is a convenient player's guide featuring cleaned-up prose and de-cluttered from GM content. The Beginner's Book player book is already half way there.
Oh right, I get your meaning now, you mean the specific GM facing content? Yeah I’d totally support the idea of moving that to the sole purview of the GMG. Or even why not both? OSE offers a “complete rules tome” with everything in one package and a “players rules tome”, just the player facing content.
 

Justice and Rule

Adventurer
Maybe I'm weird, but I liked all the stuff in the CRB. I could agree that it needs a bit better organization, but the biggest thing it adds in comparison to 5E are rules for magical weapons and downtime activities, which I think are good for a player to have access to. I remember there was a big stink about not having any magical items outside of adventures until the DMG got released with 5E.

But again, the CRB definitely could stand to go through another pass or two of editing.
 

Windjammer

Adventurer
Maybe I'm weird, but I liked all the stuff in the CRB. I could agree that it needs a bit better organization, but the biggest thing it adds in comparison to 5E are rules for magical weapons and downtime activities, which I think are good for a player to have access to. I remember there was a big stink about not having any magical items outside of adventures until the DMG got released with 5E.

But again, the CRB definitely could stand to go through another pass or two of editing.
Yeah I think it's difficult to get consensus around that issue. Two of the most revered D&D products across time appear to be 1983 Redbox, with a 64 pages player's book, and the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia, with its 400+ pages of consolidated content. Clearly both have a place, and are dearly loved. Maybe it's best if a game has both options?

Re magic items, that's another point where I don't think we'll ever get wide consistency among D&D players. As a player, I want full access to magic items and don't want to buy a separate book. As a GM, I hate the idea - like monsters, i feel treasure distribution is my purview. When 4e PHB put the magic items in the players' hands, there was uproar from the grognards that magic gear has finally been trivialized to a build component. That was quite a shift, over time, from 1990s TSR where products would resolutely refuse to give players access to magic item economy, and even modules (like Firestorm Peak) would mock the idea of "magic item shops" that came to define the 3E era and D&D ever since. By the time we got 4e, even item shops weren't the end of the development. Like quite a few other DM's in 2008, I hated and mocked 4e's idea of a "magic item wishlist" for players, treating the DM like a cashier at McDonald's. "I'll have a BigMac +1, and Bob here will have Bracers of Strength; that'll be all for today." It gave rise to this stellar satire, which I still adore to this day.

I'm still a fan of 4e's inherent bonuses system. Extract the trivial part of magic gear, put it in player's hands along the equipment section, but leave the truly magical gear, not just artifacts, to the GM. There's no reason why the Holy Avenger should be classified as equipment in the way the CRB does by implication.
 
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