Paizo has packaged the basic rules for the Pathfinder RPG into an easy to use box that comes with everything a D&D newbie needs to play. We took it for a serious test drive to find out how well it introduces game concepts, how fun it is to play and if the introductory adventure works as a tutorial for first time DMs and players.
A quick glance through this boxed set showed one major asset: it’s beautiful. The art and graphic design are clear with bright colors, giving the rule books incredible visual appeal. There’s a book for the players and one for the DM, plus some nice fold out sheets of the pregenerated characters, pre-printed blank sheets if you decide to roll your own, and even a set of polyhedral dice. The double sided poster map has the entire intro adventure on one side, blank 1″ grid on the other, and can be drawn on freely with dry erase markers (not included, but we had a set which we used extensively — that’s a brilliant touch!). Finally, the box features standup cardboard minis that fit into included plastic bases. All the monsters in the DM’s book are there, along with all four pregen characters and a full assortment of other characters. Every race/class combo in both genders. That’s comprehensive. These standup minis outclass Wizards’ monster pogs by a mile.
To put the Beginner Box through its paces, I recruited some relative newcomers to Pathfinder. We ended up with me (very familiar with 3.5, only somewhat familiar with Pathfinder) and a pair of Robot Viking stalwarts. Eric had never played Pathfinder and didn’t know much about 3rd edition D&D, so he and I each took a pair of pregen characters. My brother Joe DMed, his first time ever DMing and his first look at the Pathfinder rules (although he played a lot of 3.5 D&D). In an effort to make this as “straight out of the box” as possible, we did no prep. We sat down at the gaming table, cracked the box and started.
The intro scenario is a great basic dungeon crawl. It puts the players through some fun, easy combats and challenges them with magical traps, locked chests and a few conundrums that take skill checks or cleverness to complete. Without spoiling the ending, it’s a bit of a cheat and not especially satsifying as far as conclusions go, but does give the players a chance to face an iconic Big Bad in their first adventure. There’s not much room for role-playing, either, as the scenario drops them off at the door to the dungeon and doesn’t have any scenes in town dealing with NPCs. Still, it made for a nice intro to the fine art of dungeoneering.
From a Newbie DM’s Point of View
For his part, Joe seemed pretty smitten by the set. He liked the way the adventure brought out new rules and concepts a little bit at a time, and loved how the clear design of the DM’s book made things easy to find (although the index really needs some lines to make it easier to see which word matches which page number). It was particularly awesome having the standup minis for every encounter. Being able to draw details on the map with dry erase pens was great, too –Â add a treasure chest here or a mossy curtain there and suddenly you’ve got a much more interesting encounter. Maybe the surest proof that Joe liked the Beginner Box was that he immediately started making plans for a Pathfinder campaign, and texted me through the night with ideas for the setting.
Get the Players Playing
The Beginner Box can carry your adventures up through 5th level (the DM’s book has a map of the nearby town and some ideas for adventure hooks, plus plenty of monsters and even random encounter tables). There are magic items, spells to learn and feats to choose. This is a simplified version of the Pathfinder rules, however, so some options and details are missing. This is fine and streamlines a complex game for newcomers. One thing I do recommend is letting players create their own characters. The player’s book provides amazing walkthroughs that really hold your hand as you roll up an adventurer, and that will give them a greater grasp of the rules right from the start. The pregen characters are fine and get you up and running in minutes, but they’re even more simplified, and at times minor discrepancies between these characters and the rules in the player’s book slowed us down. Overall, Eric and I had no trouble using our characters’ various skills and abilities in a variety of ways.
A Few Flaws
Because Pathfinder is essentially D&D 3.5.5, it is still saddled with many of the core problems that game has always had. Paizo has done a lot to fix many of those problems, but the stripped-down nature of this set means some of them rear their heads again. Fighters don’t have much to do but swing a longsword over and over. Magic-users still have an arbitrary and nonsensical system of character levels and spell levels (seriously, try explaining to a new player how it makes sense that your 2nd level wizard gets to learn another 1st level spell, then when he gains 3rd level he finally gets access to 2nd level spells). There are some arbitrary divisions between what goes in the DM’s book and what’s in the player’s book that makes for some page flipping when a rules question comes up. Once we caught on that the DM’s book generally contains stuff that might happen to the players (monsters, traps, conditions, environmental stuff) and the player’s book has stuff the players can actively do or use (jumping, moving, feats, spells magic items) it all became much clearer.
Who Should Buy This?
There’s obviously redundancy between what’s in the Beginner Box and other Pathfinder books. If you’re an experienced RPG player, you can probably grab the Core Rulebook and go. However, if you’re a gamer who’s never played D&D before (maybe you mostly play Magic, or Warhammer 40K, or video games), this is a perfect way to discover how it works. If you’re the type of gamer who consistently introduces new players to the game, you will also get a ton of mileage out of this set. If you have a boyfriend or wife who’s seemed interested in D&D over the years, but feels too intimidated by the rules to try, the Beginner Box will help smash those barriers. (I also ought to point out that Wizards of the Coast has their own well-made beginner’s product, the Red Box, if 4E is more your style).
Finally, if you’re wondering what to do once you get to 5th level, Paizo just put up a blog post today explaining where to go after playing with the Beginner Box.