Pathfinder's Beginner Box is an introduction to the popular Pathfinder RPG published by Paizo, Inc. Released in 2011 it is intended to be a starting point for new and younger players, to get into the game without the high overhead of the full game library of rules and books. The set includes a condensed version of the player rules in the 64-page Hero Book, and the 96-page Game Master's Guide which also has an adventure for the group. A beginning Game Master (GM), and group should be able to play through this box and learn the basics before moving onto the full game, or it can be an easy way to teach new and young players how to play the game quickly.
Also included in the box is a full set of 7 dice, 80 full color cardboard minis for use on the adventure, four pregenerated and four blank character sheets, and a reusable flip-mat usable with any marker.
What's in the Box?
The quality and scope of what's in the Beginner Box is pretty impressive, especially compared to similar products from other publishers. The 64-page Hero Book is fullly illustrated with good quality glossy pages and a durable cardstock binding. No black and white stapled pamphlets here. The guide takes you through creation of characters, choosing between dwarf, elf, or human, and fighter, cleric, rogue, or wizard. It's a fairly good introduction to the first five levels of the Pathfinder RPG including combat, spellcasting, a huge variety of equipment and the basics of game play.
The 96-page Game Master's Guide is even more impressive considering the price and purpose of this set. Again fully illustrated, high-gloss pages and durable quality binding makes up this guide which is jam packed with information. The book starts with a 14 page adventure followed by information on how to run a game session and how to create your own stories. Following all of this is a good variety of magical items, monsters, and random encounters to use in your own games.
Besides the books you'll find a heavy duty play mat that is writable on both sides. It's not just a folded poster paper map like you used to find in these boxes, but a 30x42 card stock map board for use with the adventure in the boxed set. The combat mat is one of the few things I wasn't entirely happy with. Due to the thick material and folds it doesn't lay flat without a lot of work. The thinner play mats that other companies offer, while less durable, are much better at smoothing out. Quite a few player, and monster tokens are available for the players and GM to lay out the adventure and the battles to come. Finally, and very cool in my opinion, are the character portfolios and character sheets. Four colorful character sheets are indexed to match the sections of character creation for the book and look better than most character sheets in any product of this type. The character portfolios are four pregenerated characters, a wizard, fighter, rogue and cleric complete with their character sheet, explanation of abilities and feats, and a small bio on the back, also beautifully illustrated.
The Beauty is More Than Skin Deep
Art has always been one of the key elements of RPGs for me. A good character sketch can get me interested in that character's story, or wanting to create and play a character just like it. Dull art will just get passed up on the shelf, while a book full of good art may get bought just to look at it despite the actual text. A lot of products like this; starter packs and beginner's boxes, are often pretty on the outside and sort of lackluster once you open everything up. Games have progressed over the years, some becoming more elaborate, and others sticking to the same old design of a flashy exterior to get you to buy and mediocre art and visuals once you crack the plastic wrap. Paizo, on the other hand, has always had some of the best art in the industry. It's safe to say, with the multi-award wining product line, Pathfinder, is at the top of the pyramid when it comes to visuals and art direction as well as the art itself. This boxed set is no different.
The exterior is beautiful, as one would expect. Pathfinder iconics fight a black dragon protecting a treasure hoard in the bowels of some ancient ruin. The art of Wayne Reynolds mixes with a talented staff of artists to bring out exactly the level of detail and design we've come to expect from Paizo. There isn't hardly a page that isn't dressed to the nines with examples of combat formations, weapons, armor and spell effects, and even to the simple scrolls and details at the corner of each page. Even the character sheets are colored and sporting little character head shots, monster icons, and effects. All around the art is fantastic, and sets this product apart from any other introductory or starter product I've seen in the past.
Down to the Meat of It
Despite how well it's put together and how pretty it is, this is still just a sample of Pathfinder so to speak. It's meant to teach new players, and game masters, how to play the basics of the game, and get them hooked on delving into the larger Pathfinder library. I honestly think it does a good job of that and gives you a great value for your money. Priced at $34.99 new it gives you enough material for several hours of play, character generation, and follow up adventures if you need it. The material will get your characters to level 5, with all the abilities and equipment they'll need to make great characters. You have character sheets and tokens that will be useful as the game progresses beyond the starter box as well.
Players and GMs new to Pathfinder will find the books easy to follow, even with a quick read-through. The designers did a great job of walking players through character creation step-by-step, even marking sections of the creation chapter with similar markers on the character sheet. It's even easier if an experienced player or GM is in the group to speed things along and use the books as a good reference to teach the basics. Once you've created your character you can outfit them from a wide variety of gear, weapons and armor and then peruse the rest of the hero book that covers the basics of playing the game. Movement, light sources, combat, and actions are all covered in concise sections that give the player all the information they need without too much fluff or variation. If you're checking this out on your own the Hero Guide gives you a solo adventure to get your feet wet.
The Game Master's Guide is huge, for a beginner's product, and walks the GM through creating their own adventures and encounters. Admittedly this book will be less useful to an experienced GM that might be using this boxed set to teach the game to a new group of players, but for a new GM it has everything they would need to run a party through the basics of an adventure, and create their own. It covers environments and settings, terrain, traps, and creatures. It also has a section on magic items and rewards, all with pictures of the classic magical weapons, armor, and items characters can find. It also starts with a group adventure to take your new party through.
The adventures themselves are short, with the solo run being the shortest of the two. The Skeleton King's Crypt is a 7 page solo adventure meant to teach the basics of the game to a player. It's a good way for a new GM who just purchased the box set to see how a session can be run before bringing players to the table as well. It is set up like a choose your own adventure story, where a passage gives you options of what to do, or where to go, and your decision directs you to another passage. Along the way you are given some of the basics of the game, but there is no need to know the rules, or even create a character before taking on the solo adventure. The story is a very basic little dungeon crawl that pits the adventurer against goblins, undead, and finally the skeleton king. The passages are descriptive and give a good feel of the heroic nature of Pathfinder games in general.
Black Fang's Dungeon is the adventure that opens the Game Master's Guide in this set. The 14 page adventure is set up more like a traditional module with room descriptions, monsters, traps, treasure, and more of a free-form feel to player decisions. The story is very basic, but the point of the adventure is to teach players the game, and they do a good job of that. A larger dungeon crawl through goblins, undead, spiders and finally a dragon gives players the rules and information they need as they go. Things like saving throws, attacks, and movement are all covered when they are needed. The drawback I do see with the adventure is they don't link you back to the corresponding rules sections in the other books. While the character creation section does a fantastic job of marking which section of the book goes with which section of the character sheet, the adventure could have used more of that. The adventure is quick but exciting, culminating in a fight with a small black dragon. At the end there's a list of possible adventure ideas and plot hooks to continue your path beyond the intro run.
The other criticism I have for the adventures is that they are short. For an experienced, or even semi-experienced GM this won't be much of an issue, but a brand new GM may have trouble coming up with things for the players to do without more examples. I'd recommend this box be picked up together with a low-level adventure pack so the group can continue on and the GM can get more experience running sessions and seeing how they're put together. Even if the price point was pushed up a notch to cover the cost of a full adventure included I think it would be well worth the price, and very beneficial to new groups starting out with this set.